45 & Forward: RMW Celebrates 45 Years of Doing What We Love

From pin bars/mylar to Revit/BIM, graphite to graphic interface, digital evolution to gay revolution. Berlin wall gone, China open. Mainframe to cloud… change has been our context.

And yet our DNA still tracks through. A passion for design, the wonder of seeing new ideas form the future, and joy in working with people you can laugh with and cry with too.

On April 1, RMW architecture & interiors will celebrate a memorable date and, more importantly, the evolution of that DNA. In order to appreciate how special this will be, it might be good to revisit the past so we can share those connections across generations. Some have seen it all — like Glenn Bauer, who has experienced all but RMW’s first year — and some are brand new, like Nnamdi Ihemelu, who joined us at Thanksgiving. I’d like to share some of my experiences…

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Matthew Mills during RMW’s early days.

RMW’s founders, C. David Robinson, Matthew R. Mills, and David Watson Williams, were grad students together at the University of Pennsylvania in the mid-1960s. Robinson, Mills, and Williams could not be more different as people, but all were passionate about design. Each approached it in a different manner, but they knew what it felt like. It was thoughtful and respectful, but most of all it had to be useful and modern. Each had a different way of communicating those values. Together, they generated passionate discussions and a lasting friendship. It was a time of architecture with a big “A”. Strong, heavy, sometimes brutal buildings, many of rough cast concrete, were the image of the day. I.M. Pei was the darling of the magazines… and Gensler was only Art’s last name.

Robinson headed to California and SOM, Mills stayed in Philadelphia with Kling, and Williams joined Roche-Dinkeloo in Connecticut after a Fulbright in Rome. Robinson got the first chance and called his friends. Mills packed up his family and headed west. Williams was doing some great work in Seattle… and had fallen in love with his mentor’s daughter. He needed to wait a bit.

Maybe there was a grand plan, but I think it was mostly about being able to do what they loved.

Those first ten years were about relationships and passion. Most firms start with houses and remodels for friends and family. R&M was no different. One of those remodels sparked a long-term friendship with the young developer William Wilson. It was an unusual collaboration. Wilson wanted office buildings at a low price-point and valued strong design. His other start-up, WEBcoR Builders, was intent on creating new approaches to speed project delivery. The resulting team of developer, builder, architect, and structural engineer using design-build subcontractors was a totally new model at the time. Wilson got quality, low-cost product with a strong design edge for a new market. Development changed.

Over the span of the next ten years, this team completed more than 20 office buildings totaling 1.5 million square feet, culminating in a 12-floor steel-frame office tower for Valley Bank in Reno. Each of the partners learned and perfected their craft, and each was ready to move on to their next challenge.

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SFMOMA at the Veterans Building.

There was another aspect to this relationship: both David Robinson and Bill Wilson were passionate about modern art. They channeled that passion into helping SFMOMA move to its next stage at the Veterans Building in San Francisco’s Civic Center complex. The Beaux Arts building desperately needed up-to-date lighting, natural light conditioning, and updated public access. Ten years of projects burnished this jewel.

Limited resources, crisp modern design, careful detailing, and an overall thoughtfulness for how design could enhance experience and return, whether of offices or exhibiting art, became R&M’s signature and opened commercial opportunities that needed similar thoughtfulness and insight.

China Basin is a half-mile-long, 465,000-square-foot building at the edge of the defunct Mission Bay rail yards, edging a canal. It once served as the central transfer point for goods from rail and ship to truck and store. It was also derelict. Matthew Mills’ solution? Convert it into inexpensive office space, tie it together with a design element, paint it like a billboard in this sea of open land, and let it serve as the magnet for the area. Can you find it now? It’s still there, buried between bustling SoMa and Mission Bay.

“What’s the big idea” started every design crit and became the goal of every client blitz.

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The China Basin Building drew development to Mission Bay.

Crowley Maritime was the premier tug company on the Bay, and Mr. Crowley was a hardnosed waterman. Success in supplying the Alaska Pipeline required a move from the docks into regular office space. The ’73 energy crisis caused electricity charges to skyrocket for tenants. Mills’ thought? Task and ambient lighting coupled with a restrained and transparent design saved enough on CAM charges to pay for the installation. Rae Hagner helped him understand crisp, clean space planning, and we were into the corporate interiors market, celebrated by Fortune Magazine as designer of the future.

With design leadership from Andrew Belschner, R&M produced three more large game-changing interiors. Northwest Energy, along with Bank of America’s new electronic banking division, and Crown Zellerbach at 1 Bush Street cemented our credentials. We were a major player now.

Several small civic projects, each lovingly crafted by a particular partner and growing group of young talent, began to generate a buzz. Mills and Jeff Teel created the Mill Valley Public Safety Building, while David Robinson and Glenn Bauer respectfully inserted the Calvary Education Building into historic Pacific Heights, gaining the attention of the San Francisco Chronicle‘s architecture critic Alan Temko.

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The Calvary Education Building, Pacific Heights.

RMW built its reputation, Watson married and moved south, and young talent like Steve O’Brien, Ed Fernandez, Nick Brereton, Rick Strauss, Tom Goodwin, Jamie┬áMillican, David Israel, and Beverly Thome made sparks fly and fun happen in the studio. It was always the people that made R&M memorable. That continues to this day.

We became RMW in 1978. Robinson, Mills, and Williams incorporated and asked Glenn Bauer, Jeff Teel, Andrew Belschner, and Marjanne Pearson to join them and organize a firm for the next decade.

A new name, new partners, in new offices named “Best Small Office Design” in Interior Magazine‘s Inaugural Awards, and four large-scale projects won in competition with the major players in town: Fort Mason’s conversion, Fireman’s Fund Headquarters relocation, Gateway’s reclamation of Bethlehem Steel, and a 24-floor tower at 135 Main. We were ready to grow.

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Yerba Buena Center for the Arts.

The next 35 years are history: we found a way to keep our client-centered, hands-on approach for the principals and leveraged that talent with Mills’ “listen and lead” mantra. Our ’80s produced landmark projects: Fort Mason’s Cowell Theater, the spectacular renovation of Temple Emanuel, and Yerba Buena Gardens’ Visual Arts Center bolted on top of Moscone Center (in partnership with Fumihiko Maki), rebranding the Port of Oakland into a national award-winning headquarters, and some very interesting work for a reborn tech company named Apple Computer.

Yes, change has been our context. We had changed: not our DNA, but our size had blossomed. C. David Robinson and David Williams departed to begin the ’90s. New offices in Sacramento and Santa Rosa and the coming-of-age for Glenn Bauer’s interest in San Jose and Silicon Valley ushered in a vibrant convergence of our architecture and interiors passions. High-tech firms were moving out of the warehouses we renovated for them and into purpose-built offices with “loft type” interiors we created to mimic the culture they loved from their start-up days. Yahoo’s campus and those for Cadence and Sybase, along with an outpost for the New York Stock Exchange, garnered the accolades and prizes that covered our 30th anniversary rebranding in 2000.

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Yahoo!’s iconic Sunnyvale campus.

It was an anniversary that both celebrated Matthew Mills’ successful career and his retirement. The new millennium was the perfect time to bring talent nurtured by our culture to leadership. Gary Koshaba, Robbin McDonald, and Terry Kwik pushed interiors to new sophistication while Bart McClelland took our high-tech expertise into more complex work for the National Laboratories. Russ Nichols earned a leadership position in San Jose as Glenn Bauer focused on more complex institutional work, and Steve Guest groomed Jeff Leonhardt into the next guru of industrial Sacramento. Key milestones were the Terascale Simulation Facility for Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, Genentech’s Vacaville campus, and an innovative tilt-up for Access Dental.

Four decades brought us full cycle. We are expert at transforming large-scale urban behemoths into start-up incubators for the new digital generation, just as we did warehouses for the software creators and China Basin decades earlier. Terry Kwik, with long-time client Shorenstein Realty, converted the San Francisco Furniture Mart into such a magnet, landing Twitter’s HQ in 2014. Juniper Networks’ new campus, planned a decade earlier, became a reality.

Russ Nichols began his transition into RMW’s president’s role in 2011, and today he is firmly in the driver’s seat… but the DNA is the same. Thoughtful, useful design is the touchstone. We still focus on listening carefully, keeping nimble enough to allow principals to be actively involved in each project from beginning to end, and nurturing talented staff who enjoy working together to solve interesting problems. One client summed it up:

“Sure, RMW is a strong design firm, but what makes them different is they design for us, not themselves, and they have the best people to work with, from partners to talented staff. They are professional, interested, and really good at listening to what we have to say.”

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45 years of great design and studio fun!

Over these 45 years, more than 1,250 individuals created that reputation. Many are still with us; others dot the leadership roles of local firms. We continue to have fun, have much to be grateful for, and are optimistic about a far-reaching future.

I want to thank all of you: our clients and colleagues, past and present, for the inspiration that has made it meaningful and worthwhile. I am proud of our accomplishments and personally express my gratitude to Harish Shah, Victoria Norton, Raul Yanez, Judy Anderson, Lisa Smith, and Gloria Rasmussen for helping make us who we have become. Now, let’s celebrate! 45 & Forward…