First and foremost an artist, Knoxville architect Jonathan Miller grew up with an appreciation for old structures that served a purpose. His early experiences in commercial architecture led him to understand who he wanted to be: a residential architect that would steward homeowners to homes they always dreamed of being in.
There’s nothing I love more than speaking to an artist about their work. And Jonathan Miller is no exception. Jonathan has a passion for putting pencil to paper, and as we sit down to talk shop, that passion radiates from the screen. “I discovered in high school I could draw and I wanted originally to be an art major,” he tells me. “By my dad wisely said, ‘John, if you’re going to, if you want to draw, you need to find something you can make a living doing.’ And architecture seemed like a really nice path.”
Jonathan wasn’t a fan of the “practicalities of architecture” though, but luckily it didn’t hold him back. “I went to a modern school”—the University of Tennessee—“where practicalities weren’t the highest priority; it was more about theory and so I thrived,” he recalls. And while he admits he wasn’t a great student, “I could draw and I could craft things pretty well.” It was the art side of architecture that drew him in, “adding color, being creative, kind of thinking outside the box, the abstract process of deconstructing things and reassembling. Those were things that always came really naturally to me. That was my on-ramp.”
After graduating from UT, Jonathan set out to find his space in his field. He settled into commercial architecture, a space that didn’t quite align with him and his desire to see this as art. “I realized that no one really cares about that, that in the end our business is a business about getting a set of drawings out to a builder…it was more than just art,” he explains. “That was a tough 12 years of growing as a young architect because I was somewhat not in my element.”
And while working in commercial architecture wasn’t his ideal, it at the very least helped him understand the type of architect he wanted to be. “I didn’t like it at the time, it wasn’t fun, but it was training me to be a much better technician,” he says.
When he opened his firm, Jonathan Miller Architecture, in 2002, he knew he wanted to focus on residential work, the “perfect expression” of the type of architect he dreamed of being. “It’s where we spend the majority of our life, in our homes, so I think residential really allowed me to do a lot more design work than just the technical side.”
When he first branched off on his own, Jonathan had a vision for the types of homes he wanted to tackle. “I really wanted to take old houses and…put all the contemporary modern elements with it. It’s what we now call ‘the new-old house,’” he says. “I just think these things are timeless. There’s something about the scale and the look and the detail that resonates with us as people. And so I just really started that dream of trying to create new houses that had history to them.”
Jonathan loves to tackle smaller homes. He finds them challenging and “just more thoughtful” in the design they can create. And these smaller homes are the ones that often stick out to him more from his path, like one from when he was just starting out in his business. “There was a home that was one of those ‘For Sale, this house is free, come and get it’ type of things. And it was a family of seven who had already gotten the home and were living in it.” But there just wasn’t room for all of them, he says, and so he modified it, reshaped it to make it functional for them. “It’s not going to win any design awards, but they were the most thankful, enjoyable clients to work for. We were able to get in there and help change their life.”
Jonathan genuinely loves this work. It’s made clear as he talks about the people whose homes he has worked on. And his team has been a winning arena for him as well, though he admits that finding the right team members can be the most challenging piece of small business ownership. Oh, and creating dream homes within a strict budget can sometimes make for challenging work.
As Jonathan speaks, he’s thoughtful and positive. It’s obvious he has a clear vision of leadership as well. “I feel pretty strongly that a community leader has to be pretty present at home,” he says. “I think the biggest challenge we’re facing as a culture is the degradation of family.” His family of four means everything to him. “I think it starts there.”
Even with the challenges surrounding labor and supplies that he and many others experienced of late, Jonathan remains positive, and oddly, he sees his role right now not as simply someone who can craft a home for another, but also one who can instill a sense of calm to those around him: “I view our role is to be instilling patience and helping our clients with that mindset.”