The secret history of the Michelin House
Words by Leo Russell
The little-known story behind Chelsea’s masterpiece of modern architecture
At the northern end of Sloane Avenue stands one of the most remarkable buildings in London. Its façade is a blend of green and white tile, with a pair of cupolas shaped like piled tyres, lit at night to form shining beacons. Meanwhile, above the main entrance, a stained-glass window shows the bulbous figure of the Michelin Man next to a table of tools. This is Michelin House, once the headquarters of the famous French tyre company, and now home to Bibendum restaurant and the Conran Shop. But what’s the history of this unique piece of architecture?
"The neat, symmetrical structure suggests Art Deco – thirty years before the style became popular."
The first decades of the twentieth century were a boom time for tire manufacturers.
The number of car owners increased each year, thanks to the invention of affordable vehicles like the Ford Model T. In 1904 the tyre manufacturer Michelin moved into Britain as a rival to Dunlop. The company grew so quickly that, by 1909, they had decided to build their own office at the eastern end of the Fulham Road. This was once a busy artery leading into London – a perfect location to serve passing traffic – and the following year the designs were approved and the building work began.
Stunning stained glass depicting the Michelin man.
The designer of the building is a bit of a mystery. His name was François Espinasse and he was as an engineer at Michelin’s headquarters in Clermont.
Espinasse helped to design the company’s office in Paris, but otherwise built nothing of note, which may explain the building’s originality. The neat, symmetrical structure suggests Art Deco – thirty years before the style became popular – while the body of the property was constructed from reinforced concrete. This allowed for open spaces to store piles of tires and ensured that the insides were as flameproof as possible. Yet the exterior was decorated with such style that it’s easy to forget there was a garage downstairs and workshops above.
Car industry - Michelin
At the time, the car industry was both fashionable and highly profitable – like the tech companies of a century later.
Manufacturers wanted to create statement workshops, offices and factories, which resulted in ambitious modernist architecture, like Fort Dunlop in Birmingham and the Firestone Tyre Factory in Brentford, as well as Fiat’s famous Lingotto building with a racing track on its roof. Michelin House was built before all these, but it shared the same emphasis on bold design and high-quality craftmanship.
In 1927 Michelin expanded again, building their own tyre factory at Stoke-on-Trent. By 1930 they had moved their head office to the city, but continued to use the lower levels of Michelin House. Over the years the rest of the building was let to various tenants – a furniture warehouse at one point, the government Air Ministry at another – and the rear half was expanded. But in 1985 the company decided to sell the property, fully relocating to Stoke.
"The floor of the reception room now contains a large mosaic, showing the Michelin Man holding a glass of nuts and bolts, with a Latin motto below announcing: Nunc est Bibendum, Now is the time to drink."
Revival of the building
At this point, Michelin House got lucky. After several years of neglect, two lovers of modern architecture – the designer Terence Conran and the publisher Paul Hamlyn – made bids to buy the place.
Fortunately, the two men were friends, and when they realised that they were competing, decided to join forces instead. Their eight-million-pound bid proposed to revive the site, blending office space, retail outlets and a restaurant called Bibendum. After the two men won, Michelin House could be restored to its former glory. Many of the original features were repaired, while replicas were found for those that had gone missing. For example, the floor of the reception room now contains a large mosaic, showing the Michelin Man holding a glass of nuts and bolts, with a Latin motto below announcing: Nunc est Bibendum, Now is the time to drink.
During the war
But there was one item which could not be recovered. To begin with, the garage was decorated with several stained-glass windows displaying the Michelin Man riding a bike or smoking a cigar.
Before the war, these windows were taken down, packed in crates, and then shipped to Stoke for safekeeping. Once the war over, the London office reopened and the staff returned, but by that point the precious windows had gone missing. When Michelin House was restored in 1985, the new owners tried to find them, but in the end they had to commission replicas based on images of the originals. On the building’s one hundredth anniversary, a new appeal was made, promising an amnesty for anyone who turned in the original windows – but, as yet, the fate of the stained glass remains unknown and their present owner a mystery.
In 1900 Michelin began to publish its famous guides for motorists, listing hotels, petrol stations and car mechanics. After the First World War, they started to list restaurants as well, and by 1931 the celebrated star system was introduced. It’s fitting that, after Bibendum was relaunched in 2017, the restaurant earned a pair of Michelin stars. The building devoted to the company’s mascot was now included in the guides that carried its name. In other words, Bibendum had finally come home.