Pat and Greg Samata

Step Magazine by Sean Adams


Many years ago, Pat Samata called me with an invitation to join the Appleton Paper Design Council. I was sure she’d mistaken me for someone else. On the tiny plane to the meeting in Telluride, Colo., I began to feel sick. Now this could have been caused by the extreme turbulence. But it was probably due to my nervousness at meeting two of the design profession’s most honored and respected design­ers. I’d seen photos of Pat and Greg. They looked confident, beautifully styled, composed and elegant. I admired their work. I’d heard their name mentioned with highest praise by other designers. So I expected to be greeted as if meeting British royalty—probably chilly, with a dash of condescension. OK, so obviously the meeting turned out the opposite. They were nice—but that’s an understatement. Pat found me in the lobby of the hotel, and I was met with a smile that would make anyone melt. This was followed by a huge bear hug from Greg. Uh, like, you know it’s me, Sean, you’re saying hello to, not Michael Mabry? Pat and Greg are globally recognized designers, but they are the type of people you can call when you need a true friend.

SA: Pat and Greg, I’m going to presume that most of our readers have a computer and can go to your website to see your work. This lets us talk about some other issues. So if you don’t mind, I want to talk about you, not how much you love Univers. First, let’s get this cleared up: You are mar­ried and run a business together. Don’t you get tired of each other, 24 hours a day together?

PS: If we go back in time and explain that Greg hired me right out of school, the relationship may make more sense. In the begin­ning, I would work on projects while Greg was attempting to pitch new clients. But we discovered early on that one of us improved whatever idea the other was working on. There was a flow to the way we worked together. We complement each other because our ways of problem-solving are often the same.

GS: Sure, we absolutely get tired of each other. Well, she more than me. I can be more challenging to be around than Pat. For 20 years we worked side by side, and what happens is someone always emerges the lead on a project or an issue. And then the other per­son either concedes that this is the way it should be or a battle hap­pens. After we stopped taking every issue personally, it worked.

SA: You’ve been in business for three decades. What’s the secret to longevity?

PS: Respect for one’s partners and their abilities.

GS: Actually Samata Associates began in 1974. Our partner Dave Mason was the single solidifying factor that allowed SamataMason to continue to grow and develop over the past 12 years. Kevin Krueger also became a partner in the firm eight years ago.

SA: Do you all work together on every project? How does it work?

PS: We worked on many projects [as a couple] over the years, but as our staff grew, we branched out and collaborated with other designers in our firm too. My work with our foundation has also taken me in different directions and the same can be said about Greg’s films. But we still influence each other; we are still sound­ing boards for one another.

SA: I am deeply jealous of your office. It’s huge. AdamsMorioka is the size of a dollhouse in comparison. Did you design the space?

PS: We had outgrown our old space—that was a Victorian house—and put a bid in on a local bowling alley that was on the market. After the bank took our offer, we had terrible buyer’s remorse. The space was disgusting, filled with smelly old shoes and rancid, half-drunk beer bottles. But we worked with two friends, Tom Reed and Dayanne Schurecht, who are architects and space planners. And together, we came up with a wonderful plan that has suited us well for many years.

GS: It’s not that big, Sean! We purchased the bowling alley more than 21 years ago. The main floor space was 8500 square feet. We gutted the building when we purchased it. It was six months late in finishing and 200 percent over budget. After 20 years of what looked like excess, the market catches up, and we look like geniuses. In reality, our staff has remained consistent from 12 to 18 over the last 20 years.

SA: Yes, Greg, it is that big. In the 1950s Lester Beale moved his offices from Manhattan to a farm in Connecticut. I love the image of him, in a suit and tie, holding a lamb. You’re outside of Chicago in Dundee, which has the same rural, farm-like setting as Beale’s studio. Why Dundee? Wouldn’t it be easier to be on Michigan Avenue in Chicago?

PS: It was Greg’s idea to build the business out of the city. We love Chicago but decided we could make a life for ourselves in this picturesque, 1800s river town that was beyond suburbia. In the beginning it wasn’t easy being outside of Chicago, but we never made the distance anyone else’s problem.

GS: A personal hero, Lester Beale! First, to have what we have in West Dundee would be a fortune in any major city. So a small town was appealing because we could actually do something with scale and of interest that was affordable. Second, raising three kids in a rural area was a choice we made a long time ago, although our 13-year-old daughter Tate wants to move to Manhattan. And let’s not forget the sheep!

SA: Oh, the ones you keep in that cubicle at the office. In addition to your bowling alley offices, your house is magnificent. You both suffer from that skill that the rest of us can’t stand—the ability to do many things at the same time and make it look effortless. How much input did you have in the design of the house?

PS: What our house has in beauty it lacks in energy efficiency. With 60 percent of our exterior walls being glass, you don’t want to see our gas bills in the winter. Remember, we’re not in L.A. But we do enjoy the space, and the land around us is such a luxury. It’s like living in a park.

GS: It’s neurosis. I designed the house and its layout of space on my laptop. Then we hired a very talented architect, Karen Hol­lander, to make my feeble attempt work. It becomes a freak show, having graphic designers designing their own houses. There is a reason you hire an architect. Ours would have been smaller and more energy efficient—and half the price—if it weren’t for the “designer curse.” Logic and reality did not enter into the process.

SA: You’re joking! Designers, suffering from hubris? Amy Vanderbilt named her farm Daisyfields. My family is guilty of house names like Cas­tle Hill, Meander, Edge Hill, even-yes, embarrassingly-Adams’ Apples. Does your house have a name yet?

GS: Black hole, money pit, Greg’s folly? Our friend Matt Eyerman calls it “Casa Samata,” but other than that, no.

PS: Many of our neighbors have named their homes, but we don’t take it quite so seriously. Personally I like Casa Samata because it forces us to laugh at ourselves a bit.

SA: You also founded Evan’s Life Foundation. How did that start and what does it do?

PS: Evan’s Life Foundation began in 1992 in response to the sud­den death of our young son. Two fellow designers, Arnie Goodwin and Dana Arnett, were responsible for coming up with the idea of using Evan’s memory to help less fortunate children. The founda­tion has an 11-member board that administers funds to individual children on a case-by-case basis. We follow up with the families, and 100 percent of the donations we receive go to assist kids. The foundation is run out of the SamataMason office, and we have aided over 10,000 children in the areas of counseling, drug aware­ness, medical assistance, education and summer camps. We sup­port children who fall through the cracks of the large government agencies. So although Evan’s life was short, it had and continues to have an incredible impact on thousands of kids he never knew.

GS: Pat is the driving force behind its success. It has touched the lives of thousands of kids to date. Pat, board secretary Nancy Essex and the other board members deserve all the credit.

SA: I’ve spent time with children of creative types who are driven to school in limousines, winter at Gstaad and are pretty awful to be around. Your kids are some of the most down-to-earth, friendly and polite children I’ve met. How do you juggle all of it?

PS: They love you and Noreen. You took them to Disneyland, so of course they’re polite to you! But seriously, the kids are pretty grounded. They have made site visits with me for the foundation, and it has opened their eyes. They have been given a lot of oppor­tunities, but they understand they have an obligation to give back to others less fortunate. I’m big on teaching my kids respect.

GS: Thanks for the compliment, Sean. We paid them $100 each when you were at our house to suck up to you. For me, the patience of parenting is a struggle. I am forever saying to them, “Hey, knock it off.” And I am constantly telling Pat, “I do not have the tools to deal with this!” Now that they are teenagers, life is more challenging. But we are always reminding them that they need to appreciate the life that they were given.

SA: As if the business, the foundation, the architecture and family weren’t enough, Greg, you’ve begun a successful filmmaking career. Why?

GS: Successful? Well, we are working on it. After hundreds of annual reports and thousands of design projects over 30 years, I was facing a reality that maybe it was time for me to find a new challenge. When I was 15, I saw Antonioni’s film Blow Up, and I told myself that one day I would make movies. So one of the key factors in becoming partners with Dave Mason was to allow me to make films. Noisemakerfilms was born, and to date Luis Macias, a brilliant film editor, and myself have completed six documenta­ries. I also shot a feature-length film on post-tsunami victims in Thailand that’s sitting in the can yet to be edited and scored. Dave has been totally supportive.

SA: Do you see the filmmaking eventually replacing the design work?

PS: That may be true for Greg. But really, one leads to the other and back again.

GS: Film and video have seamlessly integrated into our business. As long as I am of value as a designer to SamataMason, having fun, and my partners want me to participate, I will. But, yes, I am focused on making films.

SA: What film are you currently working on?

GS: I have made a conscious decision to move beyond documenta­ries for now and create my first feature film. It is called Spazm, and I intend to shoot it this year. It’s important to me, because I am looking for a wider audience and different challenges than docu­mentaries can give … also, the chance to work with young, talented actors is something I’m looking forward to.

SA: Everyone in this business has the challenge to stay charged and excited creatively. I’ve certainly had those days when I ask, “How many times can I use Pantone Warm Red?” Greg, your office has a wall that must chal­lenge the Library of Congress for its amount of images and clippings. What recharges you?

GS: The human condition. Creating something that for me is new in film. And the idea that someday we will walk down the red car­pet, of course!

SA: And Pat?

PS: Pantone Warm Red.

SA: Good choice, Pat. I’ve been concerned lately about the defection of some of our best designers from design, as they get older. There’s an under­tone of bitterness I’ve heard when discussing their departures with them. Both of you, however, seem to become even more enthusiastic. For example, I see you each year at the AIGA Design Legends Gala. You buy a table and support the initiatives like scholarships and business outreach. I know it’s a trek to New York, and you can’t just lock the kids in the house, but you make the effort to be involved. Why?

PS: I have always believed that we are lucky people to be in this industry. Design has been good to us and allowed us to lead an exciting life doing something we love. Greg and I have traveled the world for our work, and we have made incredible friendships with clients and within the design community. And the disciplines we learned long ago can be applied to other interests, as we con­tinue to branch out and grow in other areas. Just the other day, my 15-year-old son Parker was wearing a shirt that read, “Design will save the world.” Now, that’s exciting!

GS: I love our industry, the people in it, the friends we have made and the rich life it has given me. I am forever excited about expanding my own disciplines and trying to do new things. I also believe there comes a time when your contribution to design can wane, either because of age, creative desire, economics, repeti­tiveness, client relationships or boredom. The bitterness of others may come from this. Lets face it: To be at the end of a career in graphic design is not like getting an Academy Award. Going from “King of the Hill” to not feeling relevant almost overnight is a psychologically painful end. You have to be personally secure in an industry where few are.

SA: I agree. That’s why recognition for all designers is so important. Right now, as we’re talking, tell me what your obsession is, the first one to come to your mind. You can’t edit it or make it safe, as in, “I’m obsessed with world peace.”

PS: My obsession would have to be the presidential election. After all we’ve been through as a country in the last seven years, I am trying to understand why everyone wouldn’t vote for Obama.

GS: Two: First, getting *!#% and getting #&@% … my children may read this. Second, making sure our kids grow up to be solid, productive, happy human beings. I’m not sure about the order.

SA: I knew I could count on you to tell me something real. And let me make a tiny detour back into work, because I’d love to know this: What has been your favorite project, and why?

PS: I would have a hard time choosing only one. A project I really enjoyed was a piece for Evan’s Life called “One Boy,” created in collaboration with a wonderful designer friend named Steve Kull. I loved working with Steve, and even though we worked on it from a distance, the project came together exceptionally well. But undoubtedly the main reason I liked this project so much was the message. It was a real story about a little boy whose life had changed for the worst because of circumstances beyond his control. But with intervention, this child was recovering and finding himself. It was simple but very effective, and the feed­back was tremendous.

GS: Wow … that’s a hard one for me. Don’t know if I have a favor­ite. Standing on the Great Wall of China, wrapping the shoot for The Hot 8 film, creating music for my latest film, Flood Street, or maybe the strategy for Strategic Hotels. Couldn’t say, really.

SA: You know I have to ask: least favorite?

PS: There are some—too many—corporate pieces I have done with empty messages and no soul. They were disasters from the start. Why do you have to ask?

SA: Because I’m nosy.

GS: Sitting in meetings recently with people in high places who do and say the dumbest things and don’t care about the outcome of their project or our work.

SA: And finally, because this is the big question anyone who’s met Greg wants to know: What’s the best cigar?

GS: For my money it’s Arturo Fuente Hemingway Classic. A beautiful thing!

SA: And for you Pat?

PS: The fact that smoking is no longer allowed in bars and restau­rants in Chicago. Now that’s a beautiful thing!