Patrick Miller’s life revolved around animation until it became set in stone
Inside Bohemian Stoneworks’ 8,000-square-foot warehouse located on Depot Street in Sebastopol, concrete is mixed and poured into custom-made molds, then wet- and dry-sanded to perfection before being sealed. It’s a place where science and art intersect—where a material that is used to build skyscrapers, highways and the common sidewalk shapeshifts into singular items of unique beauty.
Founder Patrick Miller stops at workstations to explain the steps he and his team of artisans take when making concrete countertops and much more for homes and high-end businesses. “You’ve got to keep your finger on the science,” he said. “If you get too creative without understanding what is happening to the matrix of the concrete, you could create something beautiful that will crack and not wear.”
So here’s the science: “Concrete is a mixture of cement, sand, aggregate and water. Cement does not dry, it cures; and curing (hydration) is the growing of rock crystals that surround and encase the sand and aggregate in the mix. Because concrete starts in a liquid or plastic state, it can flow into forms to take on their shapes,” Miller said. also for products like fireplace fronts, mantels and hearths; bathroom vanities and showers; furniture; outdoor kitchens; fire bowls and flowform water features.
And here’s the art: Projects begin with a customized storyboard and template designed for each client, then proceed through carefully managed stages that lead ultimately to installation. There are artistic elements, color palettes, sand mixes, custom blending and finishes from which to choose. Objects can also be sliced and embedded into designs. These have included abalone shells resembling raindrops for a residential shower at Sea Ranch, oyster shells for seafood restaurant countertops, river rock handpicked by a family for their fireplace, coins chosen for the birth years of grandchildren, sea shells and all kinds of colored glass and aggregate.
As Miller watches an artisan polish countertops for a kitchen in a Petaluma home, he points out the colorful stones that are being revealed in the wheat-colored concrete. The homeowner was able to choose the pigment and aggregate from a library of samples featuring more than 800 combinations.
“Something that I learned early on was that you can grind down into concrete and reveal what is inside. What I have discovered by doing this in a very subtle way—easing in and out of the deeper grind—is that you can bring some natural-looking nuances into the piece,” Miller said. “Polishing the pieces in subtle and unique ways makes them look more like a thing of nature.”
Once an avid fisherman, Miller spent a lot of time near Sierra Nevada streams and the Bodega coast, where he was drawn to the designs of the natural world. “I think it comes back to me. A lot of time when I am polishing something, it’s not just about the look but also about the feel, being smooth and weather-worn; and then the shapes of nature, like in leaves and animal skeletons—something about the spatial ratios and curves—they always inspire me.”
Projects and Showroom
The company’s showroom offers a place to imagine. Here, samples and photographs of products bearing the Bohemian Stoneworks’ stamp are on view. They shine a light on the artistry of Miller and his team.
Along one wall: vanities with countertops that flow seamlessly into custom-made sinks. Along another: one-of-a-kind furniture pieces. For instance, one tabletop contains slices of wine bottles. “I cut the bottles in all different angles to simulate a fossil stone and we left some of the edges,” Miller said, adding that he’d seen furniture with wine-bottle art in magazines, but the effect was too obvious. “I though it would be great if I could create a piece that looked like someone had thrown a bunch of bottles in a landfill, then a million years went by and someone came and cut a slice out of it.
“We did countertops with embedded oyster shells for Hog Island Oyster Bar in the ferry building in San Francisco,” Miller said. The job included a U-shaped oyster bar and tasting bar countertops with oyster shell slices from the original Hog island oyster farm.
“The owner of King’s Seafood Co., a large restaurant company, saw it and tracked us down,” Miller added. “We did their new Water Grill Costa Mesa Restaurant in September and just finished the new Water Grill in Dallas.”
In December, Bohemian Stoneworks completed a custom job for Vicki Vaughn and Jason Stevens, owners of a 1920’s farmhouse north of Sebastopol. “We chose his color called slate grey for our kitchen countertops, a nook in the laundry room and the hearth under our wood stove. We asked him to polish it for the hearth and expose the aggregate more. We liked the idea that the aggregate came right from the Russian River. It’s gorgeous,” said Vaughn, adding, “Patrick was super on time. He spells everything out very clearly and delivered within the time he stated. It’s nice to be able to plan and count on that.”
In February, Miller’s team began work on a large new winery project in the Alexander Valley for which they are making 17 bathroom vanities and wall panels. Other clients have already put in orders for outdoor kitchens.
In the back of Bohemian Stoneworks’ warehouse, a demonstration garden showcases flowform water features. Developed by John Wilkes, a sculptor and mathematician inspired by Rudulf Steiner, flowforms use a figure-eight pattern that folds oxygen into the water and are said to be beneficial for agriculture and the elevation of mood and energy.
“Biodynamic vineyards are interested in these for clarifying water for their ponds, and for making compost tea for preparations they spray on the vines,” Miller said. Flowforms are used in other spaces, too, ranging from offices to therapeutic settings.
From High-tech to Hands-on
Before starting his business, Miller worked in motion capture for animation. “I ended up going to Japan and working with Nintendo, Sony, and then the movie industry took off and we did Casper and Shrek. The final movies I worked on were the last two Matrix movies. We were selling these systems throughout the world, and a lot of studios were setting up studios in China and Malaysia, so I was over there a lot training people.”
The position required constant travel but it enabled Miller to build his home in Occidental; that’s when he discovered the subtle beauty of concrete countertops. He read about Buddy Rhodes, the “father of concrete countertops,” and got hooked. “They were very expensive at the time, so I mentioned it to my father (C. Eugene Miller), who was a retired civil engineer specializing in concrete. He got me started with basic formulas and procedures.” From there, Miller studied numerous technical articles that led to the ultra-performance concrete he now uses and, later, the green practices he has incorporated into his business.
After filling his home to his heart’s delight with custom concrete of his own making, Miller worked on friends’ houses on weekends and did the West Pole restaurant (now Hazel Restaurant) in Occidental. He was still flying around the world, but “all I could think about was coming home and working on concrete and my house.”
And so he did, becoming a full-time concrete artisan in 2002. He set up shop in his garage, then relocated to a former turkey ranch at Dillon Beach, before bringing on employees and moving into a building located next to The Barlow in his hometown of Sebastopol in 2008.
His landlord, Sebastopol native Howard Miller (no relation) owns the historic 1920’s-era building—and Patrick credits him for giving him a hand by lowering his rent during the recession. Howard formerly operated out of the same space when he and his dad owned the Miller Door and Cabinet Company.
Today, Bohemian Stoneworks continues to grow. Miller said he has little competition and 80 percent repeat customers.
“A lot of the repeat customers come here because we are known for making a stone in a custom way that you cannot get anywhere else… The best compliment we can get is: ‘Oh my god, it’s better than I had imagined,’” Miller said.
Like Father, Like Son
Looking back, Miller reflects on one of his favorite memories. “We were asked to do this house in Carmel during the recession, and it was a good project for us even though there were long trips involved. Then on Father’s Day in 2010, my dad asked what exciting projects I was working on.
“‘Oh, funny you should ask,’” I said. “‘We just finished this beautiful house called the Butterfly House.’ His eyes lit up and he said that was the first project he worked on as a junior design engineer after leaving the Navy in 1949.”
Designed by architect Frank Wynkoop, the Butterfly House has been described as “an architectural masterpiece” anchored directly into the rocky seashore line.
Wynkoop’s sons, also architects, happened to be working on the Butterfly House at the same time as Patrick. “I called Wynkoop, Jr. and told him the story of both sons and fathers working on the same project. I got to take my mom and dad out there, and it was pretty good,” Miller said, adding, “I believe I got to see the original concrete my father worked on and it was still going strong.” SD
Learn more: bohemianstoneworks.com