Strolling past an average uniformed doorman in a lavish lobby on the Upper East Side, I doubt that many visitors would suspect that this traditional uptown building hides one of the most immersive, intricate, vibrant, and inhabitable art installations in the city. Though she is best known for her poetic collages and furniture designs, artist Apryl Miller has been working for years on a unique creative masterpiece: her own home.
The home features doorknobs that never match, colorful paint applied asymmetrically, rugs that spiral out in teardrops of various colors, and a collection furniture made out of garment fabric. The domesticity of Apryl Miller’s installation sets it apart from more traditional gallery or museum-based works. Miller’s home is so striking because it is both artistic and livable, a comforting space constructed around family. It inspires questions about how we choose to inhabit our individual spaces and how we make these spaces our own.
I spoke with Miller about how she began constructing her home as an art project, the difference between art and design, and the importance of making any living space a personalized one.
Emily Colucci: When and how did you start beginning to create this home/art piece?
Apryl Miller: I started this place around 1998—1999. It wasn’t like I was a bride-to-be and knew what my dress was going to look like. In terms of my artistic output, I come from a DIY family, which has its pluses and minuses because you think you have to do everything yourself. I was working in a clothing store. I started making jewelry to accessorize the mannequins. I have always been about one-of-a-kind stuff and against the idea of doing things that all look the same. From there, I went to this space.
I knew that I wanted a lot of patterns and a lot of colors. I couldn’t really say, “Oh I like this era of furniture or design of furniture.” I was taken on these shopping trips by my architect and their assistants and I couldn’t buy anything. It was awful. So I finally made some furniture purchases that I didn’t want to make. After 6 months, I fired the architect, who had an international reputation. I thought that he could help me find what I was looking for and I didn’t understand that they don’t do that. They have a look that they do and you have to go by their look and expertise. I wanted something much more personal and expressive.
EC: I know you went through quite a number of architects who were all more interested in selling you their design rather than helping guide you through your own personal vision. When did you decide to make it your own artistic project?
AM: I really wasn’t an artist until this house. It just came out like a magician with a silk scarf, and it was endless. The house was the full-blown expression of what was there but the real reason that happened was because I became a mom. Like a folk artist, I’ve made these things in an organic way because I needed them. When I was a kid we always made Christmas cards and ornaments, so when I had my kids and I needed invitations, I started making them. I started doing my collage work really with my kids. It came to the point where I had to make a nest for my children.
I wanted to create an environment that when you walked in, you didn’t make all these associations with other places and experiences. I’m not into being anyone’s customer. I didn’t want my house populated with other recognizable furniture pieces and accessories. I wanted people to come here and to have it be its own inclusive environment, to experiencing just being there in the moment instead of thinking, “Oh, there’s that iconic piece by Herman Miller.” It doesn’t mean you don’t recognize some shapes or periods. I took things already in the world and made them mine. It’s a whole world in itself.
EC: It must be an amazing experience to live or be brought up in this type of creative space. I also wonder, though, about its status as an art piece. Not being in a gallery or a museum, how have you been able to show viewers your work?
AM: I made this cool inclusive environment. We’ve been sitting here not necessarily waiting or in suspended animation, but waiting to be discovered or for people to come and recognize us. I have also felt as an artist that I’m hiding in plain site. I’m not in any part of the city where there are studio tours or art tours, so I haven’t been able to be a part of those things.
EC: I feel that what you have done with your home is extremely important when looking at the history of immersive art installations. Why do you feel that your home has largely been ignored?
AM: I have some theories about that. I have an acquaintance who has an apartment in Brooklyn and has been collecting 1950s kitsch for years and years. The place is packed with kitsch. He was in the New York Times and I wasn’t. The difference is that people look at that and they immediately understand it. They know what he’s got, they don’t have to wonder what it means. People don’t go through all the stuff that they go through with me; they can make a connection immediately.
I’m not part of a movement, or art-walk. I’m not that. People can’t look at me and say, “Oh well I know Apryl’s work. She’s just like so-and-so.” I have another friend who has a place in Brooklyn. He’s in the Times, of course, but he’s part of a group of people who were the pioneers of people in Brooklyn. I’m not a part of anything or at least, I’m not seen as a part of anything yet.
EC: What do you see as the difference between art and design?
AM: The difference to me is that designing is with a blank piece of paper and a pencil. Design isn’t very free-form. It’s working within more rigid parameters, working with ratios. I also think with design you have your concept and then your execution. Here, there are many places where they happen in the same time. There’s no room for that in the design world. It’s all about budgets, schedules, and time frames. There is so much emotion put into my house. That’s why it’s not design.
EC: You also have your studio space inside your house. As a writer, I find your combination of writing and art extremely fascinating, even with the words that you use in your furniture. How do you go about creating pieces for the home or within the home?
AM: I will have an experience in my life that I want to express, and so I make something. Or I will have a need for something or a deadline and I’ll make the work for that. What I’m doing now is I’ve rented some studio space out of my house. I have more control now over making my work than I used to. My goal is to create work more consistently, and I’m not normally a fast worker.
I still write poetry; writing is deeply tied to my visual work. For example, I made the tear drops that are now my dining room for a show with Muffinhead called Banzai. I wasn’t planning on writing a text to go with that but as I was sketching out the space, I started writing statements about tears. I did 63 tear drops. I thought I should write 63 statements on tears but then I surpassed that. Then I thought I’ll write 126 but I passed that mark too. Whenever I do a visual project, it always has a written component on it.
EC: What do you see as the connection between your home as an art installation and your other art pieces, the collages or the tear drops?
AM: I finally wrote the defining statement of what my work is about. I’ve been trying and trying. I finally came up with: “My work is about our universal state of imperfection and how it binds us together.”
I’m a recovering perfectionist and the idea is that when something gets ruined in your home-piece of furniture or carpet, our first impulse is to replace it. The reality is you really can’t do it, it looks like you patched it. The way I look at it is you should just patch it and glorify the patch. Leave i,t or accentuate the fact that there is a crack in the wall, or make it something totally different. The concept of trying to get back where we used to be is something I try to put aside. If we can stop thinking so much about perfection, we could instead just live our lives as life comes to us. I have areas of my carpet where it got damaged. I take a totally different color and make a shape. It’s about changing the way we think about living.
EC: What do you see as the significance of what you have done with your home as an art piece?
AM: I focus on the idea of really thinking how can I make my home really personal for me and who I am, and the people who live in the house. You have people who do things in their homes that have nothing to do with who they really are. You come to people’s houses and you have these hunting scenes in their library even though they’ve never hunted in their lives. People could think more about who they are. Who are you in the world and why do you think you’re here? What do your surroundings mean to you? We can think about ourselves more as individuals.
Here, you have this richness. Rather than noticing this one thing, the room is filled with many many things to notice. None of the doors have matching doorknobs. Inside, the closets are painted different colors, and others have patterns painted in them. So it’s a process of discovery. Even I see things that I’ve forgotten I ever saw them before. What I was doing was putting together a dialogue that doesn’t end. That’s what we all desire in life: a never-ending dialogue with another person. When people come here they become a part of the dialogue that the space is about. Rather than coming and interacting with each other, they interact with each other and the space.