Building Continuity

Nearly 40 years after their first collaboration, Herman Miller’s relationship with architect Sir Nicholas Grimshaw continues.

Written by: Clark Malcolm

Artwork by: Ben Anders

Partial exterior view of Herman Miller's PortalMill facility in the UK.

Max De Pree needed an architect. Herman Miller needed manufacturing and distribution facilities in the United Kingdom, from which to serve its international markets—and in 1975, as chairman of the board of directors, it was De Pree’s job to make this happen. Thus begins a long story that recently added a new chapter with the dedication of Herman Miller’s PortalMill manufacturing and distribution facility in Melksham on November 17, 2015.

For his architect, De Pree eventually picked Sir Nicholas Grimshaw, of Farrell Grimshaw Partners. The firm scored highest on Max’s personal rating sheet—105 out of a possible 105. Among his thirteen ratings are “sensitivity to environment,” “awareness of Herman Miller’s human relations and attitudes,” and “problem-solving approach.” (For the full account of this project, see The Bath Brief).

De Pree and Grimshaw hit it off, in no small part because of the skills and personality of a young American architect, Jeff Scherer, who was living with Grimshaw at the time in exchange for his help in renovating a London townhouse. The brief for the Bath building, Max’s “Statement of Expectations” inspired Grimshaw and his team. “The project captured our imagination,” says Grimshaw. Grimshaw and Scherer did most of the drawings themselves. The innovative building at Bath (manufacturing) and the subsequent building at Chippenham (distribution) won awards, impressed the Herman Miller people, became landmarks in the UK, and functioned well for decades—exhibiting both Herman Miller’s point of view of design as a human-centered and problem-solving process, and also the company’s egalitarian views about the innate worth of every person, no matter their rank of job. “Max and I saw very much eye to eye,” says Grimshaw. “We were both interested in developing industrial democracy.”

Spreads from Statement of Expectations, published in 1976.

Spreads from Statement of Expectations, published in 1976, pair Grimshaw’s photographs with each of Max’s expectations, illustrating the execution of the brief.

Now leap ahead almost 40 years to 2012. Andy Lock, President of Herman Miller International, needed an architect. Changes in markets and manufacturing technology demanded a new UK facility. Transportation in and out of the old Bath location was difficult, and manufacturing and distribution would be more efficient if they were combined under one roof. Lock and his team wanted better access to transportation; they wanted to keep as many of their employees as possible; they had a tight budget; they wanted their new building to express Herman Miller’s long-standing values about people, design, and the inherent worth of individuals.

The problem was finding the land. “Vacant land in the proper location is always hard to find,” says Stephen Perkins, VP of International Research, Design + Development, and a member of the project team. “Finally, in Melksham, we found an old running track. It was perfect. Then we discovered our newts.”

Exterior view of PortalMill.

PortalMill, located in Melksham, UK, opened in 2015.

In the UK everything has a past, and in the words of W.S. Gilbert (of Gilbert and Sullivan fame), “things are seldom what they seem.” The perfectly located site turned out to be an abandoned World War II Royal Air Force base and home to a colony of Great Crested newts, a protected species. After a few groans, the team welcomed the newts as neighbors and began to find a way to keep them that way after the building was finished. The first step was to round them up and make sure they would not be harmed during construction—a time-consuming process that involved dividing up the site and building a kind of newt fence.

The delay turned out to be a blessing in disguise, although nobody knew it at the time.

Meanwhile, at Grimshaw’s office a couple of young architects had been given the task of putting together a report, to be titled “Buildings Revisited,” documenting projects that were over 20 years old and recording their condition. The Herman Miller project from 1975 was one of these buildings. Grimshaw saw the images of the Bath and Chippenham buildings and became intrigued. How were they holding up? How was Herman Miller doing after all these years? He wanted to see them in person.

Exterior view of BlueBuilding.

Opened in 1983, the landmarked BlueBuilding located in Chippenham, UK, served Herman Miller well for decades.

And so it happened that on April 4th, 2012, Grimshaw visited his early works and the beginning of his connection to Herman Miller. Lock and Perkins ate lunch with him, finding the famous architect “utterly delightful, unassuming, and unaffected.” But Lock couldn’t quite bring himself to spoil the occasion by telling Grimshaw that the buildings in Bath and Chippenham were going up for sale. “We studiously avoided the subject,” recalls Lock.

That could have been the end of this story, but Lock spent a fitful night and decided in the morning to call Grimshaw and confess the truth. After hearing the story about Herman Miller’s plans to relocate and the team’s reluctance to approach Grimshaw with such a limited budget—and having caught wind of Herman Miller’s plans from his young colleagues—Grimshaw insisted on doing the project. “We are Herman Miller’s chosen architects,” he said. “We should be able to accommodate anything they want to do.” Lock and his team hoped that they would end up with a building that Grimshaw wanted to design, that the budget would allow, and that Herman Miller wanted to operate.

Exterior view of PortaMill.

The new PortalMill facility combines manufacturing and distribution under one roof, while continuing to express Herman Miller’s values.

Some 43 months from Lock and Perkins’ lucky lunch with Grimshaw, it can be called a success on all counts.

On November 17, 2015 Herman Miller’s new PortalMill building opened on the site of an RAF base turned running track, and now co-habited by an American corporation and a colony of British newts. The new building is designed to create community and “honors and respects the people and the work that takes place there,” says Perkins. The street and café are shared by everyone in the building, and the sense of ownership is palpable. “When we toured the place while it was under construction, we could tell something special was happening, this is our place, we all belong here” says Neil Banbury, a wood machinist at PortalMill. “The working environment is amazing, it is so light that it’s like working outside,” says Bruce Harper, a warehouse supervisor. The building is also “incredibly efficient,” says Grimshaw. “Everything’s roaring there.”

Portrait of Sir Nicholas Grimshaw in PortaMill.

“Max and I saw very much eye to eye, we were both interested in developing industrial democracy.”

-Sir Grimshaw

Interior view of PortaMill.

Interior view of PortalMill’s entrance.

“The working environment is amazing, it is so light that it’s like working outside.”

- Bruce Harper

Interior view of PortaMill's factory floor.

Interior view of PortalMill’s factory floor.

“With help from many teams, Nick found a way to make it work for us,” says Lock. But the real explanation for this remarkable chain of events lies in what Lock calls “the continuity of human relations.”

“Our relationship with Herman Miller has been one of mutual learning,” says Grimshaw. What began almost 40 years ago was a bond between a British architect and an American business executive. Both were open, curious, and serious about their work together—willing to learn from each other and to venture into uncharted territory to create something memorable. For as Max later wrote in Leadership Is an Art, “A building is like a reputation. Once you create it, it lasts a long time.” The shared enthusiasm for the potential of design to solve problems and improve human life and work was planted in Somerset in 1975, it quietly grew and strengthened for forty years on both sides of the Atlantic, and blossomed again in the fall of 2015 in Wiltshire. 

Exterior view of PortaMill.