Celebrating 50 Years as an In-Demand California Design Firm

Written by William Young

California-based design firm RMW Architecture & Interiors has three studio locations across the San Francisco Bay Area, San Jose, and Sacramento. It was established in 1970 by David Robinson and Matthew Mills. In 1981, David Williams joined and the three cemented the name Robinson Mills + Williams (RMW) for the firm.

The three were friends from college, and although there was an initial struggle to find a balance of work and project time with the new venture, eventually secured the firm’s first major commission – an interior project for vessel management outfit Crowley Maritime – and grew the business in the Bay Area. The partners split from RMW in the 1990s to pursue different opportunities, with Matthew Mills carrying the firm until his retirement.

Today, the firm is overseen by President and San Francisco Managing Principal Stan Lew (who began in 2007), as well as Sacramento Managing Principal Jeff Leonhardt (who joined in 1994-95) and San Jose Managing Principal, Chairman of the Board, and former President Russ Nichols (who joined the company in 1985).

The company has had its hands full throughout its lengthy tenure with many differing and complex designs and architecture projects. The recent pandemic situation may have caused a slowdown of projects, but Russ Nichols asserts that it has also caused the company “to be more thoughtful about future solutions,” leading to a lot of time spent with its clients to envision the future of the workplace.

The industry is seeing a greater focus on net-zero energy designs, which means that such a project will “create as much energy onsite as it will consume in a year,” making it effectively off the electric grid according to Stan Lew. These buildings may be new or retrofitted with net-zero energy technology to keep up with the infrastructure needs of today’s businesses. A couple of these have been the firm’s more notable successes like the 435 Indio Way and Shipwire projects.

Jeff Leonhardt also points out that RMW’s Sacramento operation is very well-regarded thanks to its signature attentiveness to clients and how it is very careful in using a client’s money to maximize results; as a result, RMW has been involved with projects like the commissioning of a new office for the Sacramento Kings National Basketball Association franchise and the ICE Block 1 building, the latter being the first mass timber mid-rise commercial building approved in the city. This project netted the firm the ‘Best Commercial Wood Design – Mid Rise’ award at the 2019 Wood Design Awards, put on by non-profit industry group WoodWorks – Wood Products Council. Other successes in the Bay Area include the new General Purpose Laboratory on the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory campus and work for Prudential in San Francisco and nearby Los Angeles.

Apart from its many accomplishments, what makes RMW stand out in its field is its built-in company belief that the twin headings of interiors and architecture are of equal importance, followed by an internal focus on people at every level.

Each office has its own philosophy. Nichols remembers that the San Jose market used to be more separate from the other offices and unique in its attitude, but it has since developed a kinship to its sister studios as the San Jose area is coming into its own with the rise of community investments. Leonhardt has overseen the establishment of the Sacramento office as one of the leading design firms in the surrounding area. And in the Bay Area where RMW was founded, Lew acknowledges that the location’s history and identity as the largest office is conducive to fostering the greatest diversity in design perspectives among its people.

While many architectural firms emphasize designs, RMW is proud to put its focus on people both within and outside of the company. Russ Nichols describes the firm as “a relationship-based practice,” as over eighty percent of the company’s customer relations are with clients who return consistently for the great service they have come to expect on every level. Jeff Leonhardt describes the “uncommon sense of connection between management and rank-and-file [workers],” as one of the big reasons why he decided to make RMW his home base some twenty-five years ago, as he noticed firsthand the commitment of the company to putting its workers first and encouraging an entrepreneurial mindset in approaching designs and projects.

President Stan Lew adds that the organization is a very flat one, with transparency between all levels of the firm, and staff is not separated by hierarchy. The firm fosters a culture of openness behind its doors and supports engagement within its local communities, like its long-standing relationship with area non-profit organizations like youth organization Boys & Girls Club of America and the San Francisco 2030 District, which describes itself as “an interdisciplinary public-private collaborative working to create a ground-breaking high-performance building district in downtown San Francisco.”

Another reason RMW strives to be a top-notch employer and remain people-focused is that the design and architectural markets see retention as an ongoing challenge. According to Russ Nichols, workers at design practices in large urban environments chase design opportunities and do not stay long, but the people who have worked with RMW have traditionally built careers and have ended up staying for a long time instead of hopping between firms.

There is also a great deal of competition between the many notable design firms in both the Bay Area and around the globe, but RMW stays true to its people-focused identity and doing everything possible to align with a client’s goals. Managing principals have taken on segments of work in industries outside the firm’s comfort zone, such as the Sacramento office’s move into industrial architecture in the 1990s, to ensure the variety of work necessary to endure socioeconomic downturns.

RMW has put its clients and workers first to respond effectively to every challenge that has come its way in the past half-century. Having been around for fifty years and counting, it has had to weather countless storms, including the ongoing COVID-19 crisis of 2020, so the task of diversifying work is one that the firm has had to stay on top of continuously.

As things stand in 2020, Stan Lew and the entire team at RMW remain mindful of how the current situation is affecting clients, and the firm will continue to work to position itself to increase market share thanks to its new partners and their plans to continue building the company. It will also be scoping out opportunities for new projects in markets more tangential to its core work, such as the yet-untapped housing market or the prospect of Bay Area business moving to Sacramento, and providing more diverse opportunities to its staff.

Russ Nichols knows that, when it comes to architects and designers, everyone at RMW is “all about doing work, not selling it,” and care is always taken when looking ahead to the next job opportunity. RMW management is confident it will be creating sustainable and exciting work for both its long-time clientele and in spaces on the bleeding-edge of design.

The celebration of a half-century in business is a significant milestone. Nichols feels that hitting fifty means that the firm does not have to be as defensive about its place in the industry as it was in its earlier years. “The firm’s reputation is strong, [so] we don’t have to keep pitching ourselves to people.”

Leonhardt is also proud of the Sacramento office celebrating its thirtieth year in business in 2020 and comments that RMW, overall, has “built a strong legacy… its perseverance has paid off.” Lew is well aware of the responsibility in carrying on the company’s strong legacy into the future in whatever form it may take and is conscious about “always doing business in a way that is impactful and has positive outcomes.” Lew, Nichols, Leonhardt, and everyone at RMW are looking forward to the next fifty years and to taking the momentum of the past and building it onto the future.



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