Sydell Miller knows what beauty looks like. In 1980, she co-founded Matrix Essentials Inc — one of the largest manufacturers of professional hair and beauty products in the US. Her Palm Beach, Florida home, La Rêverie, was an architectural masterpiece. And now, its eclectic and inspiring contents have come to auction at Christie’s in New York.
Modern and contemporary works by artists, such as Joan Miró, Jean Dubuffet and Joan Mitchell, from Miller’s collection were recently offered in Christie’s 20th and 21st Century Week. On 10 June, a dedicated sale titled La Rêverie: The Collection of Sydell Miller will comprise exceptional pieces of 18th-century furniture and design.
Together, the sales reveal an individual who was ‘always seeking perfection, looking for the best and housing the best in the best environment that she could think of’, says Christie’s America deputy chairman Jonathan Rendell.
Building the collection at La Rêverie
It was after her husband Arnold died that Miller began creating her own art-filled centre at La Rêverie. Rendell describes the house as a family home where ‘kids could play with their footballs’ but where ‘every single surface, every finish was absolutely pristine, beautifully displayed.’
Spread throughout indoor and outdoor spaces was a diverse collection of works that Miller had acquired in the US, Paris and beyond. ‘When you walked into the house, you would see an enfilade filled with objects, all of which worked together, but also challenged you slightly,’ says Rendell.
Around the house were works by the leading lights of Impressionist, modern, post-war and contemporary art — perhaps chief among them Miró’s Femme (Femme debout), 1969, a voluminous and monumental bronze sculpture drawn from a late series by the artist. This piece stood, Rendell says, ‘as a sort of protective goddess’ at the bottom of the staircase as well as the door to Miller’s room.
Elsewhere, over the library mantlepiece, hung Jean Dubuffet’s 1950 Baigneuses. Its contorted, angular forms have become emblematic of the artist’s important series, each work executed just a few short years after the end of the Second World War.
Dubuffet, Mitchell and a love of nature
Baigneuses also offers insight into Miller’s appreciation for the natural world. When viewing the painting, ‘out of the corner of your eye you have the sea’, Rendell says, ‘showing that the position of the work was thought through quite carefully.’ Joan Mitchell’s Rain, 1989, meanwhile, is an ode to the artist’s love of nature, channelled through an explosion of greens, blues and yellows.
However, it is a design object coming to auction this June that perhaps most astutely captures Miller’s reverence for nature: François-Xavier Lalanne’s rare ‘Elephant’ table, an octagonal table with a glass top and legs shaped like trees, surrounded by seven freestanding elephant sculptures.
This work, explains Christie’s Design specialist Emily Fitzgerald, was created especially for Miller. It represents a ‘mini Lalanne collection all in one’, but even more importantly embodies the creativity and warmth of La Rêverie.
Miller would often change the positions of the elephants, and her children would place hats on the creatures’ heads on New Year’s Eve. ‘It’s a work that’s supposed to be fun,’ Fitzgerald says. ‘It invites interaction, and then these little animals become part of your family.’
Sydell Miller: art and philanthropy
To truly understand what set Miller apart in both her collecting and achievements, it is important to understand that for her, beauty lay not only in art but in humanity.
The Miller family are dedicated philanthropists and have offered unparalleled support to organisations such as the Cleveland Clinic — to which, in 2005, Mrs Miller committed $70 million to create the Sydell and Arnold Miller Family Pavilion, home to the Miller Family Heart, Vascular and Thorasic Institute.
In 2017, Christie’s hosted a sale of several important works from Miller’s collection — including paintings by Picasso and Chagall — that raised $67.2 million, with proceeds going towards supporting the clinic in its work and mission to bring art into healthcare settings.
A collection that merges old and new
Conversations between old and new are found across the collection. Among the works of 18th-century furniture is a centre table that once belonged to the famous art collector Ange-Laurent de La Live de Jully. It captures, says Christie’s European furniture specialist Csongor Kis, ‘all the qualities of the revolutionary style’ that emerged in the 1760s and 70s, when Rococo went out of fashion and neoclassicism came in.
Entering into dialogue with it is a 19th-century library table inspired by a work in Jully’s collection, a Viennese cabinet ‘that has this fantastic inlay of pewter and ebony’, as well as works by important 18th-century makers such as Adam Weisweiler, Étienne Levasseur, Joseph Baumhauer and Phillippe-Claude Montigny.
Kis says that the furniture represents another key passion of Miller’s: collecting ‘what was revolutionary, avant-garde and ahead of its time. It’s fun to see how something that was revolutionary in 1760 speaks to something that is just as revolutionary in 1960.’
For Rendell, this auction marks a moment to celebrate a ‘really successful female entrepreneur’ and ‘trailblazer’. It is a journey into her home, La Rêverie, which, Rendell adds, was exactly that. ‘It was her dream.’