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Creative interest: The architect-fabricator collaboration at its best

Features, Interiors | July 1, 2012 | By:

The longstanding working relationship between an architect and a fabricator pays back in professional and personal rewards.

We love working with architects because they often have great ideas and challenge us more than anyone else,” says Jim Miller, president of J. Miller Canvas Inc., Santa Ana, Calif. “Sometimes I think we should probably say no to some of the more creative ideas but we usually say yes and figure out how to build them after that.”

Miller’s comments are from a recent profile of the award-winning fabricator who has found it stimulating and profitable to team up with architects, and creatively rewarding to team up with one architect in particular: Clive Wilkinson, of Clive Wilkinson Architects, Culver City, Calif. (“Innovation unleashed” by Sigrid Tornquist, Specialty Fabrics Review, Nov. 2011) Their collaborative projects have garnered both firms numerous prizes from the AIA and IFAI’s International Achievement Awards program.

“When we began working on the first project with Jim in 1997–98,” says Wilkinson, “a contractor already part of the team knew of Miller’s company and suggested that it could construct a series of large and small tents that we designed for the perimeter of the client’s interior space.” The project, an interior re-design for the TBWAChiatDay advertising agency, called for numerous small- and medium-sized conference rooms. “It worked out well, and we called on them again for a later project and have done so for quite a few projects over the years.”

“The [ad] company had an open workspace with a basketball court in the middle,” recalls Miller. “And employees were running around on skateboards. It was a place full of creative people.” Miller felt his project idea should reflect the ad agency’s creativity and submitted a design concept for conference room walls fabricated with spandex. “The walls were actually cheaper to build than some of the other options,” Miller says. “And of course the owners liked that, and we were awarded the project.”1

Budget limits lead to inspiration

Fabric walls for a powerful, ground-breaking ad agency? The agency known for changing the industry with its 1984 Super Bowl commercial for Apple? With such high stakes clients as Nike, Honda and Porche, you might think that TBWAChiatDay could make its conference rooms from any material it chose.

“Our use of fabric actually came about as a response to the economics of the project,” says Wilkinson. “Like many projects that have a very tight budget, the only way our design could be constructed was at the absolute minimum cost. Using fabric was a way to accomplish this and still have the design impact we sought. We are constantly trying to find ways to have a big impact with an economy of means and fabric can easily provide this with high potential.”

What makes a good team?

“Jim [Miller] is a very creative guy,” says Wilkinson. “He has a natural head for experimentation and it has been a great relationship between our two companies.” Miller is quick to credit his employees for helping cement the working relationship between the two firms. “My employees often come up with very creative ways to solve problems that I may not think of—every one of them from cutters to sewers to installers.”2

His background may contribute to the success rate as well: Miller began his career in the specialty fabrics industry when he was 15 working in a sail-making loft company with his father. Soon after, his dad started Miller Marine Canvas where Jim Miller worked until 1994. “At that time I had been working as a boat fitter, and once you know how to do that you can pattern just about anything in fabric,” he says.3

Clive Wilkinson has an equally creative background, having designed numerous successful projects for clients in the creative fields, as well as cultural organizations. His firm recently was given the top award for interior design in the 2012 National Design Awards by the Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum jury. The award is given for “exceptional and exemplary work in domestic, corporate or cultural interior design.” The National Design Awards announcement further states that Wilkinson’s practice “has completed creative projects across the globe for clients such as Google, Nokia, Twentieth Century Fox and Disney, winning over 75 awards in the process.”

Key qualities

The key word that describes both Miller and Wilkinson is creative. Not far behind that would come imagination. In fact, these qualities are used as a filter by Wilkinson when seeking collaborative partners for any project. “What we look for in a contractor is the aptitude for imagination,” says Wilkinson. “And with Jim it comes from his curiosity of everything. Fundamentally, we look for people who have an inquisitive nature; we’re not always looking for a contractor based on their technological or mechanical skills. It is a very subtle, but important fact to bring to the working collaboration table, besides an awful lot of construction industry knowledge and the professional know-how needed to do the work, is above all a curiosity for exploring new things together. Jim has a naturally curious temperament.”

This mutual respect clearly has paid back this collaborative duo a bounty beyond the financial to that of highest professional respect.


1Tornquist, Sigrid. “Innovation unleashed,” Specialty Fabrics Review, Nov. 2011, pp 26–29.



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