It’s a story of defiance that started early on – early 19th century, that is. Set in a wild west frontier town, a hardworking publisher confronts an ambitionless teenage son. He offers the son assistance in any career of his choosing, and finally the son reveals not a lack of ambition, but a lack of opportunity is the only thing standing in the way of his dreams.
“‘I want to be an artist,’ said the son, ‘and you can’t be an artist in Kansas City, we don’t have any artists. I want to go to Germany. They have a wonderful school.’ He had it all figured out. And that was of course outrageous.
“And his father said, ‘When would you like to leave?’
“‘And the son said, ‘Tomorrow.’
“And the father said, ‘Pack your bags.’
“He didn’t come back for many years. And he got a brilliant education and he was amazingly talented. He became the Dean of the Arts in Kansas City for 50 years.”
So begins the ancestral fable of painter George Van Millett, as told by his descendant, local designer Caroline Dunlop Millett. It’s a tale that explains the inspiration behind Caroline’s own long and varied career path. One part historical and one part genetic, the story became a blueprint for her childhood passion for creativity: painting pictures, writing stories, and playacting.
One of the stories Caroline had already written was that of her own ambition. As early as high school, she knew that marriage and children were not for her. Her castles in the sky were built from the finest educational institutions and the toughest classical courses, all leading to a vision of success-ever-after.
And so, her father, a neurologist and psychiatrist, advised her to cut the cord on her creativity early. As a career-oriented woman in the 1950s and 60s, art courses were labeled as an unnecessary distraction.
“And then I decided I had to go abroad my junior year, which wasn’t done then, especially if you were a Midwestern young lady,” Caroline said. “Because I’d read Hemingway and Fitzgerald, and I knew that you couldn’t make it if you stayed in the Midwest. So I would go to Europe.”
Once again following in the footsteps of her ancestor, Caroline soon packed her bags, not for Germany but for the University of Edinburgh. It was only halfway around the globe that ambition could finally be introduced to rebellion, and a few art courses slipped their way into her roster – a roster that nonetheless still gained acceptance into Stanford Law School.
“I wanted to look like Marlene Dietrich in a steel grey suit with stiletto heels. I was going to defend the poor and downtrodden,” Caroline explained.
Once again warned by her father that the Frank Capra ideal would not be found in law school, Caroline still applied herself to passing her classes, before quitting at the end of her first year. A master’s degree was next on the list of endless possibilities, except this time family support was cut off. A series of odd jobs and borrowed money sustained her through the next three years at Stanford, in the pursuit of a M.A. in cultural history and a California teaching credential. A brief fling with interior design classes during her time at Stanford sparked her interest in the arts once again, but the practical nature she’d been instilled with since childhood led her to the foreign service instead.
“After seven years in universities, I recognized that I was over-educated and under-employed,” Caroline said. “Since our federal government was newly committed to hiring (a few) women officers, I was eligible for entry-level foreign service work. Ultimately, I received a diplomatic appointment from President Nixon.”
Her first jobs were in Brazil: assistant cultural affairs officer in São Paulo where she directed binational learning centers, then serving as U.S. Cultural Attaché in Brasilia. In 1970, she transferred back to Washington, where she was finally able to use her admiration for the arts to positive effect by creating a series of educational programs for overseas distribution, with a focus on American architecture and historic preservation.
“With a modest salary and less than $1,000 in the bank, I managed to buy a dilapidated 19th century townhouse in Logan Circle, a red-light district which was formerly Washington’s finest neighborhood,” Caroline continued.
“Since the State Department was funding ‘leader grants’ to give validity to our overseas programming, I managed to arrange an appointment with architect Louis I. Kahn in Philadelphia. What I didn’t know was that the great architect had already turned down many offers to be a ‘super star’ (because he detested ‘useless government programs’). Mr. Kahn made his position very clear immediately after my arrival, so I changed the subject by asking him for advice on my modest Logan Circle project. Without hesitation he sat right down and started drawing pictures with me at his big desk. He was familiar with the neighborhood and believed it might be possible to jump start a major historic preservation movement. So he explained how to use space and light in my townhouse and he demanded that I start studying. Then he introduced me to his own engineer Fred S. Dubin, who needed help with his ‘green’ lobbying in Washington. Fred guided the construction process and I introduced Fred to all the right politicos. And, Mr. Kahn decided he could go to Europe as a leader grantee after all.”
And so through Louis’ assistance, Caroline slowly sketched out her identity as a real estate developer focusing in historic preservation, through which she discovered the concept of the home as art, the theme of a series of classes she will be hosting with InLiquid in May.
Erica: I’ve noticed that you’re very honest in your interactions with everyone.
Caroline: Oh, I was very honest — which often got me into big trouble in the bureaucracy. What usually saved me time and again was hard work, and giving credit where credit was due to my superiors. In the late 1970s, I found a new niche and a supportive boss at the State Department and USIA. Since I spoke Portuguese and had worked on the São Paulo Biennial show, I was asked to write a book surveying all international art festivals and fairs. After completion I acted as executive secretary to the U.S. International Exhibitions Committee — which sounds dreary, but was actually fascinating. The directors of the most prominent U.S. museums gathered together in Washington regularly to review the new work of artists to be featured in all the official international art shows. This review process lasted days, during which time I took notes furiously and got myself yet another enlightenment. The fact that I was an arch lackey and the only woman in the group troubled me not-at-all: I had this golden opportunity to learn once again. Soon thereafter I began my own contemporary art collection, most notably including the work of Walter Darby Bannard.
With the coming of Ronald Regan in 1981, the official and cultural hay day ended abruptly. I was transferred from State to USIA and was told to orchestrate disinformation programs (mostly damning the Soviet Union). Since the agency’s Voice of America had formerly been committed to truth — and since I found myself incapable of selling lies for a living — I resigned and left town.
Fortunately I moved to Philadelphia where I found some new historic slums to bring alive again. Since the “Move” bombing had recently devastated the University City area, real estate values were at an all-time low. I had substantial capital and investors, so in 1988 I was able to buy a dilapidated church, rectory and school, a veritable city block of formerly splendid 19th century buildings in ‘The Bottom’ (reputably Philadelphia’s worst slum). I named my preservation project ‘The Cloisters.’ With a team of 100 contractors, including Mantua neighbors and a team of formidable Irishmen, I designed and renovated 65 condo units in the school and rectory. I did the interior design work myself for all the model apartments in both buildings. For the church, architect Frank Weise completed the drawing plans; he had the brilliant idea of putting a whole new structure inside the old church exterior walls. We completed the majority of the construction in five months.
Then came the Resolution Trust Corporation debacle in 1990. My mortgagor Bell Savings Bank went bankrupt, and the federal government called all mortgages including mine. Although I lost millions, I won the subsequent lawsuit and began another phase of my life.
This disaster actually turned into a good opportunity for me to devote myself exclusively to work I truly loved: designing, writing, and art collecting. I got a part-time job teaching at the University of Pennsylvania and continued to teach interior design for twelve years. Also, I secured a major residential design and renovation job in Anguilla where my attorney had bought a vast ocean side villa. Here, in cheerful seclusion, I wrote ReDesigning Design: Home as Art.
Erica: Isolation is good for writing.
Caroline: Exactly. My room was next to the rock room, which was 18 feet tall and carved out of the cliff. So that was my little domain and no one was allowed to bother me. I took up Ernest Hemingway’s hours. I got up at 6, I had my solitary breakfast, then I’d go down the cliff to a shelf over the sea, and I’d do my yoga and my prayers to Poseidon. So then I’d write for my five hours. And if I couldn’t write I would have to stay there with my work. And I pretty much managed to write.
Erica: Tell me more about the workbook concept for the book.
Caroline: It’s truly interactive. That’s the single most important thing, along with helping people express their personal style and think in terms of making art. They discover what their favorite possessions are, the family treasures. They discover how much room they want to give to their hobbies. They learn the basics of how to express themselves. They learn a great deal about who they are, what they value, where they want to spend their money. My principles are contrary to my own economic interests. I want them to learn how to do their own thing and express their own selves. I reject pre-made home concepts, copy-cat color schemes and whole-home furniture collections, a-la Ralph Lauren.
Erica: It’s such an odd concept, to brand your home.
Caroline: Branding is a mass-market method, inappropriate in the realm of residential design which is all about individuals in their personal environments. I teach people to have faith in their self-expression. For those homeowners who can’t manage to do all the work themselves, I encourage them to hire professional designers who will help them discover and celebrate their personal preferences.
That’s why ReDesigning had to be a workbook, an intensely interactive text to be filled with the reader’s own ideas, photos, color samples, drawings, and whatever else pleases them.
And these are also the reasons for the “Ten Master Design Steps,” which I discovered while teaching at UPenn. Since my students were almost all engaged in real life projects, I was able to observe that their best work was almost all a product of a common process, which turned out to be a surprisingly orderly sequence of steps. I simplified this process into ten doable steps, and added stories and games and various other amusements to provide encouragement.
Erica: Do you feel like the nurturing experiences you had – that helped shape you – do they inspire you to carry this on in your teaching?
Caroline: Absolutely. Nurturing is at the heart of home design and helping others to have confidence in their own self-expression.
Erica: Does art still play a role in your life outside of the home?
Caroline: Beginning in the 1990s, I established my own online art gallery. Over the years, many of my interior design clients bought these artworks. I managed to promote the careers of a number of young artists, as well as more established painters. Most recently, I convinced the Andy Warhol Museum staff to sponsor Chuck Connelly’s work in a one-man show, which opened September 2014.
Erica: Tell me more about your upcoming book.
Caroline: Intimate Spaces: Man Caves, Boudoirs and Sanctuaries is a work in progress which I’ll reveal in our second session at my own home in May.
Intimate Spaces is a title I developed for the Broad Street Review because I realized that even highly educated adults are monumentally challenged by interior design. If you really want to be a fine home designer, the best place to start is an intimate space.
The quintessential intimate space for women is the boudoir, which I discovered in French novels while I was reading my father’s favorite 19th century author Balzac. All sorts of wonderful and exciting things happen in his fictional boudoirs, since they were the only places where the privileged woman could be completely herself. In the seclusion of these private places, love affairs and intimate friendships thrived. Nowadays, the concept of the boudoir is passé, apparently except in my mind. Since I believe love is the most important thing in the world I would like women across the country to have their own boudoirs, decorated in a way that suits their contemporary life styles. For example, I created an exquisite little green house addition exclusively for a bored housewife to entertain her best friends, while her husband and sons’ had the rest of the house to watch TV and play their games. For a successful insurance executive living in a conventional hard-edged black and white condo, I converted her home office into an opulent boudoir replete with lavender velvet chaise, fur blanket, and a mirrored ceiling.
Unlike the boudoir, the brand new man cave is unquestionably the most popular concept in today’s residential design. During the 1990s, most man caves were rooms in converted garages and basements — ideal places to escape households dominated by wives and mothers. In the 21st century the concept expanded to include men’s elegant libraries, movie theatres, tree houses, and elaborate retreats for all manner of sexual activities. Nowadays, any room which men design for their own purposes can be called a man cave!
At this stage in my own intimate life the sanctuary idea is particularly appealing. I’m currently considering a number of options including a little country retreat, a yoga and/or tai chi room on my roof, or a studio to create tablescapes with the new friends I hope to meet in class!
Join Caroline for a celebration of her books, art, and friendships on May 16 and 30. Click here for more information in joining her class series.