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  The Robert Murrays  

The Adaptable House: Instead of Limiting the Living, It Grows and Changes with Its Inhabitants

By Peggy Clifford / Photos by John Macauley Smith


The themes of living are love, sociability, privacy, self-expression, comfort, belongingness, and the like. They will suffuse a good house, i.e., a house willing to be suffused, with meaning. The house is no more than a receptacle to receive them...

An important house is a bad house. You can tell an important house easily because it is all something or other; all Colonial, all glass, all open, all closed, all wood, all in the latest style, or all American. Such houses, because they are insistent and stuck up, prevent us from properly exercising our emotions.


Robert Woods Kennedy, architect, in his book, "The House and the Art of its Design"


A house that agrees completely with the foregoing is the deceptively simple Aspen house which is haven and workshop for a young playwright married to a designer & weaver — Robert and Erika Murray, and their three children.

Resembling an adventurous ark gliding through a sea of sagebrush, it has no conventional lawn. A mass of flowers brightens the entrance in summer, but the rest of the "yard" is left to the caprice and care of nature. A stand of aspen trees wraps around the front of the house, shielding it from the road. The back of the house looks West across the Roaring Fork River to Aspen Mountain — an impressive view which changes subtly as the sun moves across the sky. From the deck, one is vaguely aware there must be other houses around, hidden somewhere in the landscape, but, on the whole, the vista is wild and uninhabited.

The exterior, rough board and batten, is all linear and angular. The interior is highly personal and private, decorated in contemporary Murray. The living room has a wall of windows, high ceiling, white walls, and a fireplace. A graceful Victorian loveseat fits in happily with severe modern pieces and a round coffee table made from an old oak table.


As one might expect, the studio has the best location. Beyond the serenity of the living room, it is an incredible and exciting tumble of books, yarn, records, children's toys, and an uncataloguable miscellany of things the Murrays use or merely find interesting to look at. The moment one steps into the studio, one realizes that things happen here. Its disarray is electric. Mrs. Murray's loom is there in the window where she weaves her brilliant materials in the early morning sun. There's also an ancient piano, a tremendous collection of plays, novels, and poetry, and a desk where Murray sometimes writes, though he often retreats to a desk upstairs in their bedroom, which is dominated by a complete set of the Oxford English Dictionary.

The kitchen is a lively area, too, with a tumble of modern and traditional cooking tools hanging up and stacked about. Compactly arranged, it looks too small for a real cook, until you watch Mrs. Murray preparing for a dinner party. Somehow it fits her perfectly as the menu gradually takes shape on the white mosaic tile counter. Beyond the kitchen, and within easy reach, is the dining room which doubles as playroom for the children. There is a Franklin stove in the corner, and the dining room table and tall chairs are Victorian, salvaged from an old house a friend was tearing down. Many of America's leading artists, writers, and educators have dined at this table on their visits to Aspen.

  View of house. View of loom.

Left: The house erupts from the
sagebrush, but fits its site easily.
Right: Mrs. Murray's loom in a rare
moment of inaction.


Upstairs are three bedrooms, furnished — more in regard for comfort and color than for efficiency or drama — with a grab bag of old furniture found in Wisconsin, Aspen, and the East.

      View from porch. Kids playing.

Left: Windbells and a weather-beaten wicker chair offer a quiet haven on the deck.
Right: One advantage of a sagebrush lawn: It's a great place to play hide and seek. Here Tim finds Chris.


An eclectic art collection is scattered about the house — paintings from artist friends combined with unexpected objects like an old beaded purse, plus tapestries and paintings and sculptures by Mrs. Murray, and a striking drawing by their oldest child, Christopher. Impressively framed and matted, it resembles a Siamese scroll. A closer look reveals that it's actually several rows of vividly crayoned figures. This sort of surprise happens everywhere in the house. A vivid Tiffany lamp in the upstairs hall turns out to be a creation of tissue paper by Murray's brother, Gibbs, a New York artist. Yet there is a real Tiffany lamp in the studio.

It is by no means a pretentious house. The Murrays have neither the time nor the constitutions for pretensions. It is a refreshing change from the "just so" houses that seem to be taking over America — those houses where everything is inflexibly arranged as in a museum... where you feel the hostess spent months searching for just the right bowl to adorn the coffee table... where each picture and each chair is placed in inviolable relation to one another (one much-photographed house even has markers on the floor indicating where the chairs must be placed, and woe unto the unfortunate visitor who moves one).


The Murray approach is the opposite — here the house adapts to the ebb and flow of living, instead of imposing itself on its inhabitants. It is as open to change as its owners.


The house was designed in the rough by Mrs. Murray, with architect Rob Roy doing the finished plans and specifications. The house turns its back on the road with all rooms looking toward the mountains. Upstairs (floor plan not shown) are three bedrooms.



The long deck extending across the back is probably the most important "room" in the house. It is oriented to get maximum sun and warmth in winter months, and easily accommodates such diverse activities as (1) a wood-sawing project by Mr. Murray and Chris, or (2) an afternoon snooze in the hammock.


(3) Mrs. Murray at her loom with Molly nearby. From her loom come all manner of materials — the shift she is wearing, the studio curtains, even her husband's ties.
(4) The Murrays chose the house site for its peace, privacy, open spaces, and its bonus of early morning sun.



Robert Bruce Murray, who resembles a young Alec Guiness, looks vaguely preoccupied with a secret joke most of the time. For the 1965-66 term, he is playwright - in - residence at Yale University where his play, "The Good Lieutenant," was performed at the 40th anniversary of the Yale Drama Theatre in November. It is an enviable position, given him by the John Golden Foundation, since it furnishes him the time and the finances to concentrate on the only thing he really wants to do — write plays.

Like all ambitious playwrights, Murray's big dream is to have one of his plays produced on Broadway (all but one of his six plays have been produced by repertory and university groups), but he is not sure that Americans really want the theatre. "I'm probably being very pessimistic, but I sometimes have the feeling that we are forcing the theatre down American throats. If there is an American national theatre, I think it probably is the movies," he says. It was part of this feeling that led him to shepherd through the first two Aspen Film Conferences when he was program director of the Aspen Institute for Humanistic Studies for several years.

Murray likes the discipline and limitations of playwrighting. "Things are cut down to the bare bones. You are not allowed anything extraneous, beguiling as it may be." The theme which interests him most is the inexplicableness, the devious subtleties of life. His plays do not try to solve problems, but show the world to be a baffling place where "the bad guys' and "the good guys" are constantly changing roles.

Americans have a strict moral sense, he notes. "We're baffled because we're not aware of the bad things that can come from good — and vice-versa. We don't understand skepticism. And we hate to admit that it is possible to be mediocre and have no place to go. That's why playwrights like John Osborne are unpalatable to an American audience. His viewpoint is uniformly black. But it's true. And despite the truth, we don't admire people who wallow in self- destruction. Personally, I think the answer may not be in loving one another, but in knowing whom to hate."

Murray is currently working on a complex drama about the ill-fated Donner party which attempted to cross the Sierras in the winter of 1846. Snowbound and starving, the survivors were reduced to cannibalism. "In my play, the leadership of Donner, a man of high ideals, is eroded by the baseness of his synchophant followers and his own ambition. It was a brave and foolish adventure which sent this band of people down to the very depths of hell and managed to bring some of them back up. I think this is the stuff of drama." For a man in his early thirties, Murray seems almost dogmatic about his principles and opinions.

Erika Grob Murray has definite guiding lines, too. She wants her husband to succeed on his own terms. She wants her three children to be healthy and talented and happy. And she wants to be herself.

Restlessness brought Mrs. Murray to Aspen in 1955, and she remains eternally restless. She learned to weave at the Milwaukee Vocational School and while at the University of Wisconsin achieved considerable success making men's ties out of her own materials. Erika ties were an instant success in Milwaukee's art colony. Now she also makes Erika stoles, skirts, shoe bags, and the like from her handwoven materials. She also makes all manner of offbeat things, ranging from mythic banners for announcing grandiose occasions, to immense felt blocks decorated with butterflies.

Her winter project at Yale is making a group of "sewed" paintings, using all kinds of materials for her "canvas" — felt, burlap, cotton, wool, anything that catches her fancy — and then "painting" them with embroidered and appliqued designs, ranging from abstract patterns to flowers.

She is a truly inventive person because she can make something out of nothing... a candlestick out of beer cans, artificial flowers out of scraps of corduroy, a shift out of burlap. Given a sow's ear and a few minutes, she probably could make a splendid silk purse.

Even in her favorite outfit of sneakers, denim skirt. and Brooks Brothers shirt, Mrs. Murray has a sort of vintage elegance, yet her language is very contemporary and her interests are diverse. She's a daring skier, has a pilot's license, plays both the flute and the piano.

The Murrays are a close family, unsophisticated, pursuing highly individualistic courses. Their Aspen home is a warm and boisterous setting for their myriad endeavors. It proves that a good house is only the sum of its owners' personalities.


A Murray Menu

Mrs. Murray likes to cook and entertain, and does it well — in fact, she usually treats her guests to homemade French bread. Her favorite sort of party is dinner for eight or ten people, and a tried-and-true Murray menu is this one, an inspired admixture of Scandinavian, German, and French recipes.

Cold Plum Soup
Boeuf Braise with Spätzle
Peas with Onions and Roast Peppers
Tossed Green Salad
with Oil and Vinegar Dressing
Mousse au Chocolat
Red Wine    ·    Coffee

Cold Plum Soup


Cook, at a slow boil, 1-1/2 lbs. halved, seeded purple plums with 3/4 cup sugar and 1-inch stick of cinnamon in two quarts water till plums are soft, about 15 minutes. Strain, rubbing plums through a fine sieve with a wooden spoon. Return to a boil and stir in 5 tbs. cornstarch mixed to a paste with cold water. Cook slowly 5 minutes. Add 1/2 cup dry white wine and chill soup well. This results in a fairly sweet soup. If you prefer a more tart soup, a few squirts of lemon juice will do it. Or serve with lemon slices so each guest may season to his own taste. Top with a dash of whipped cream -- or sour cream or yogurt. 8-10 servings.

Boeuf Braise with Spätzle


3 lb. stewing beef cut in 1-1/2 inch pieces

4 oz. butter

1 cup yellow onions, diced

1 cup carrots, diced

4 tbs. flour

1 cup red wine

1 cup stock (or canned bouillon)

1 tsp. salt

Bouquet garni


Melt butter in heavy casserole. Brown meat, a few pieces at a time. Set aside. Brown the diced carrots and onions. Remove with a slotted spoon and add to meat. Stir in and brown the flour, either on top of the stove or by putting casserole in 375 degree oven for a few minutes. When flour is dark golden brown, add wine and stock. Stir smooth, scraping off the browned juices stuck to the bottom. Add meat, vegetables, seasonings, and bouquet garni. Cover tightly and simmer gently three hours or until tender, either on top of the stove or in a moderate oven -- regulate so the stew barely bubbles. If the liquid becomes too thick, thin with wine and/or stock. This dish can be prepared the day before, then reheated slowly and kept warm till serving time.

This recipe -- minus the spätzle -- is the foundation for a savory boeuf bourguignon. To complete it, skip the spätzle and add braised white onions and sauteed mushrooms just before serving.

The flavor of the stew is vastly improved with the addition of 1 tbs. brandy and 2-4 tbs. red wine or Madeira (or 2 tbs. Marsala) 1/2 hour before serving. 8-10 servings.

Spätzle -- Tiny, tender German dumplings


3 cups flour

3 eggs, lightly beaten

3 tsp. salt

About 1-1/4 cup liquid (half milk, half water)

Melted butter

Grated Parmesan cheese


Mix liquid and lightly beaten eggs together. Gradually add them to flour and salt in a bowl, forming a semi-stiff batter. Cover and let mellow in refrigerator for a few hours (this step can be skipped if you're in a hurry). At serving time, put batter on large wet platter, cut with a spoon into pencil-thin pieces, about an inch long. Slip into big pot of boiling water. As they rise to the top (almost immediately), remove with slotted spoon. To serve, toss with melted butter, sprinkle with Parmesan cheese.

The spätzle should be very tiny and tender. If dough is too soft, add a small quantity of flour; if too stiff, add water. The aim is to make it barely stiff enough to hold its shape in water. If it is too stiff, the spätzle will be tough. To simplify cutting, put dough through a metal colander or spätzle machine (well worth the investment). This mechanized cutting requires stiffer dough however.

Spätzle can be poached in advance and refrigerated in covered dish. To reheat at serving time, dump them into a large pot of boiling water. Stir for a few seconds, then drain immediately (this is also a foolproof way to reheat rice and spaghetti). Toss with melted butter and grated Parmesan cheese. 8-10 servings.

Mousse au Chocolat


4 oz. (1/2 cup) Nestle's chocolate bits (or semi-sweet baking chocolate broken in pieces)

3 tbs. hot strong coffee (instant will do)

1/4 cup rum (or brandy or orange liqueur)

6 eggs, separated

3/4 cups confectioners sugar

1-1/2 cups heavy cream


Combine chocolate and coffee in top of double boiler or saucepan. Melt slowly over low heat, stirring to blend smoothly. Let cool a few minutes, then add rum. Stir to blend evenly.

In a large mixing bowl, combine eggs yolk and sugar. Whisk briskly until a pale yellow color, and until mixture forms narrow ribbons when whisked onto the top of the mixture. Add chocolate mixture to egg-sugar mixture and whisk until blended.

Whip cream until stiff in another bowl. Add to chocolate-egg mixture and fold in gently with rubber spatula. Whip egg whites till stiff and carefully fold into the mixture (the aim is not to break any of the sir bubbles which you have just laboriously beaten into the whites). Gently heap into a large serving dish -- or individual dessert cups, Japanese bowls, glasses, souffle dishes, etc. Chill uncovered in refrigerator for 3 or 4 hours. After chilling period, cover with foil until time to serve. 8-10 servings.

For a variation, omit egg whites and you will have a thick, velvety mousse, instead of a light, frothy one.



Original format: 18-1/2 by 24 inch sheet, black and green on tan paper, folded into covers, 4-3/4 by 6-1/8 inches. Photo credit: John Macauley Smith.



Adapted for the web by Andrew Stafford.
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