When the eminent art historian Robert Rosenblum was a graduate student at Yale in the late 1940s, he accidentally stumbled upon what seemed to be a catalog titled Painting Toward Architecture for a major exhibition of the same name then touring museums and galleries throughout the United States. He was stunned by what the book revealed. “What lay inside had, for me, almost the character of a thrilling manifesto, a sweeping overview that, with the help of discussions of specific works of art, summed up the most adventurous and progressive feeling and thinking of the first half of our century.” Rosenblum was so overcome by the book, he likened it to Genesis, evoking a new version of creation. “Moreover, it persuasively suggested that the three traditionally major arts—painting, sculpture, architecture—had joined forced in a common endeavor to materialize, even if for the moment more on drawing boards and in museums than in the real world, a dream of a Utopian society founded on an alphabet of new forms.”
It was not obvious from the front cover that Painting Toward Architecture was about the Miller Company Collection of Art, which would eventually be known as the Tremaine Collection. Nor did the cover—with its abstract forms borrowed from works by Jean Arp, Ben Nicholson, and John Tunnard—reveal the individual who was the force behind that collection. Located in Meriden, Connecticut, the Miller Company manufactured innovative forms of fluorescent lighting that needed to be designed by architects into new buildings as a structural element instead of as an interior-design afterthought. Burton Tremaine Sr., company president, explained in the frontispiece that the art presented in the book “might be suggestive to contemporary architectural designers.” Only under the “Acknowledgements” did the name of the company’s art director appear—Emily Hall Tremaine. She had taken the non-paying position after her marriage to Burton in 1945.
Although the initial impetus for mounting a nationwide exhibition and publishing a book was to educate architects about lighting, there was much more to it. Emily was attracted to the Bauhaus philosophy that called for a synthesis of manufacturing and art to benefit society as a whole. She believed strongly that abstract art could be a stimulus to contemporary design. But first she had to convince the pragmatic Miller Company board of directors that funding a major touring exhibition and a book were good ideas from a marketing standpoint. Emily did so by explaining that the lighting division was concerned with problems of architecture, structure and design. “This indicates a direction we must follow, and one to which we must introduce the architects in America who will use our equipment.”
Once she had their approval, she consulted with her cousin and art connoisseur, Chick Austin. With his help, she put together a stellar team: Henry-Russell Hitchcock wrote the main essay; Vincent Scully and Mary Chalmers Rathbun wrote the text on the individual works of art and also helped put together the exhibition; and Alfred Barr wrote the foreword.
To further connect art and industry, Emily undertook a redesign of the Miller Company’s logo, stationery, and advertising material, hiring Josef Albers who was a natural choice because of his expertise in graphic design and color theory. In Painting Toward Architecture, Henry-Russell Hitchcock had written that one important aspect of Albers’s work was experimentation: “Industrial design, photography, advertising, and installation techniques, as well as—indeed more than—architecture, have profited from such experimentation.” It was just such experimentation that Emily was trying to encourage among architects.
Having purchased Flying by Albers in 1945, Emily chose to use it on the cover of a company brochure, making a connection between its linear design and fluorescent lighting. Likewise, she used a sculpture by José de Rivera on a brochure for heating equipment. Unfortunately, the relationship with Albers deteriorated when he demanded payment. An agreement was reached, but the argument did not bode well for the continued use of art. For several reasons, by the 1950s the Miller Company returned to a standard approach to advertising; Emily stepped aside as art director; and the collection expanded into abstract expressionism.
Barr had written in his foreword, “The intelligence and courage of the Miller Company is to be admired; may its enthusiasm prove contagious!” Although that did not turn out to be the case, Painting Toward Architecture set a very high bar for corporate art programs in the years ahead. As Hitchcock wrote wistfully at the end of his essay, “The process of cross-fertilization by which creative influences are transmitted in the arts remain a mystery despite all that is written about them . . . the continued devotion of many leading architects to the work of the artists who first stirred them a generation ago seems to indicate [that] the vitality of abstract art as a major influence on modern architecture is not yet exhausted.”