Jim Miller experiments with improbable concepts until they become a reality.
By Sigrid Tornquist
“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. in 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, whose company now specializes in commercial awnings, tension structures and creative interior meeting spaces, 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. “I was beginning to be interested in awnings and tension structures more than marine products, and decided to take what I knew and start my own business.”
Skateboards and spandex
The initial focus of Miller’s company was awnings and tension structures. But in 1998 he made the leap to creating interior meeting spaces out of fabric when architect Clive Wilkinson in L.A. invited J. Miller Canvas to submit ideas for creating conference rooms in a local ad agency. “The company had an open workspace with a basketball court in the middle, and employees were running around on skateboards,” he says. “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.”
If it works for them …
To communicate the project concept Miller’s company built a scale model using fabric, as opposed to submitting a drawing, to enable the client to be more confident about how the finished product would look. Providing realistic visual representations of a design concept is a sales strategy that Miller employs for project bids. As a less time-consuming alternative to scale models, most often he creates photo renderings. “When I first started doing photo rendering there weren’t too many awning companies doing it,” he says. “But a lot of sign companies were. I saw that it was a great tool that would work for us as well.”
The ability to see what works in other market segments and apply those ideas to his own is one of the process strategies Miller uses to increase efficiency. Not only has he adapted ideas from the sign industry, he also draws on his experience in the sail-making lofts. “When we bought our building we set it up to function for efficiency,” Miller says. “We saw-cut sewing machine pits into the concrete so that the sewing machines are at floor level, and the fabric doesn’t have to be pulled up onto a table. That’s very common in sail-making lofts, but not very common in awning manufacturing companies.”
The shop flooring he had installed on top of the concrete is another feature borrowed from his sail-making roots. The varnished wood floor of the 4,800-square-foot building resembles a basketball court, and functions as a table for laying out very large structures. “Our tables are on wheels and you can move them out of the way, lay out the fabric and pin it directly to the floor using lofting pins,” Miller says. “Whereas if you have a concrete floor you have to use things like weight bags and tape.”
Miller enjoys the challenge of piecing together solutions for manufacturing processes within his company as well as for his clients’ needs. One such project was the result of a restaurant owner who asked Miller to design a structure that would enable the client to use his patio seating area 365 days a year. Miller and his team immediately started imagining how such a retractable roof system might function. “It really is a team approach,” Miller says. “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.” The end result was a design for what is essentially a fixed canopy structure with motorized retractable panels, engineered to 110-miles-per-hour wind gusts. “That was seven years ago, and now we’re doing quite a few of them,” he says.
Designing systems that retract requires a certain amount of trial and error—a part of the design process Miller finds exhilarating. In 2008, Clive Wilkinson Architects approached Miller with an unlikely concept, one which he couldn’t refuse. The idea was to design, manufacture and install a retractable classroom at Virginia Commonwealth University. The project required an extensive series of cables, blocks, motors and microswitches in order to deploy the room. “We built mock-ups here in the shop,” says Miller. “Some didn’t work with the first few tries because the shape of the room required the motors to turn on at different times. It was pretty tricky, but we figured it out.” (For more, see “Retractable room adds class to space.”)
Miller has found that with each challenging project his company has taken on, the boundaries of his and his employees’ skills have expanded. “It’s amazing what we’ve learned when we’ve taken on projects that are a little out of our comfort zone,” Miller says. “We’ve run a lot of risk but we’ve learned a lot, and it’s brought more challenging projects our way because of the press and coverage we’ve gotten as a result. It’s made a big difference for our business.”