BABE #75: SAMANTHA STEIN,
Architect @ Renzo Piano Building Workshop
Sam is - wait for it - the girlfriend of the brother of the boyfriend of Mara, our executive assistant (who has only the loveliest things to say about her!) After chatting, I can already assume that she's a super Humble babe, considering the fact that she failed to mention she speaks several languages and recently had work featured on Apartment Therapy, along with tons of other insanely impressive accomplishments in her field! Thanks so much for finding time to chat with us amidst your busy schedule, Sam! You're a freakin' babe.
Hometown: New York, NY
Current city: Arenzano, a little fishing village on the Ligurian coast of Italy
Alma mater: Vassar College & Wash U. in St. Louis
Degree: B.A. in Art History & Master's in Architecture
Very first job: Babysitting!
Hustle: Architect @ Renzo Piano Building Workshop - Genova, Italy
Babe you admire and why?
Oh gosh, so many. I’ve got this amazing group of girlfriends in NY right now, and each of them is doing amazing things within their own profession. They all inspire me daily.
How do you spend your free time?
Cooking elaborate meals, and planning and then executing any and all travel opportunities!
Go-to coffee order?
No coffee for this babe! Shocking I know, but I love a good chai.
What would you eat for your very last meal?
Eggs. Probably over easy or poached, with all the diner breakfast works.
If you could have coffee (or Chai) with anyone in the world, who would it be?
Currently very into what’s on the Italian radio.
New York <3
Tell us about your hustle:
I’m a practicing architect and designer, so my day-to-day varies a ton depending on the kind of project I’m working on and what phase of the design it’s in. I spend a lot of time on the computer, drawing and modeling spaces, but also a lot of time emailing and on the phone because architecture is actually all about communication. Right now, I’m working on a building in New York, but from Italy, so it’s nice to think that someday hopefully what I’m working on will change my home city!
What does your typical workday look like?
It definitely changes depending on what phase of a project I’m in, because there are times when I have to just be head-down-nonstop-drawing, but the best days are when I have a little time to sketch out or try different design options before choosing what solution works best. I love interacting with my clients and hearing back from them on how they want their new space to work. Typically there’s also a lot of back and forths with all the consultants who work on a project, like mechanical and structural engineers during the design phase, and then contractors and millworkers, etc., when the project is being built.
What is your work environment/office culture like?
My office is an amazing place. It's sort of a laboratory for design, suspended on a cliff above the Mediterranean sea in Italy. It’s a great mix of people and not everyone is an architect; plus, we're all from all over the world, and as you walk through, you'll hear three or four languages just on your way to the kitchen! Everyone is very supportive and collaborative, which you have to be in architecture - it’s definitely a team sport.
How has the transition abroad been like for you (adjusting to culture, language, time zones, etc)?
I’ve been here for about 6 months now, but was working for a similar international office beforehand, so a lot of the cultural changes from American offices are familiar to me at this point. For example, we make a big point of getting outside the office, taking a long lunch, and talking to one another outside of our desk space, which definitely enriches your quality of work life and lets you get to know coworkers outside of just work talk. I actually minored in Italian in college (why????) so it’s been super fun to pick back up with the other language. While it definitely has its challenges, I really enjoy learning technical terminology and slang in Italian! The time difference definitely does make it hard to chat with friends and family back home, though, so I’m grateful for my mom’s insomnia and Do Not Disturb Mode :)
What made you decide to pursue architecture as a career?
My parents like to joke that growing up, I would always build dollhouses... but never play with the dolls. In a way, you could say I’ve definitely always been an architect - I've always loved to draw and plan, and I’m very organized. My first academic love was Art History, but the more I studied it, the more I realized I was gravitating towards the buildings themselves. I knew I wanted to be as well rounded of an architect as possible though, so I made the tough decision to get a degree in Liberal Arts before going to technical school, which definitely lengthened my education, but I don’t regret it for a second.
How would you say being a woman has affected your career/work/professional experience?
I think I’m very lucky to have come into the profession in a time where gender equality across the board has been so important. I have female architect inspirations and have worked with a lot of amazing ladies over the years. However, it’s still a male-dominated profession overall, and I know we have some work to do to bring architects to a completely equal playing field.
What is the gender ratio like in your industry? Do you see it evolving?
Definitely! I’m so proud to currently work on a mostly female team with a female boss and I was happy to see that in Grad School, the ratio of my class was 50/50.
What are some common misconceptions about your job?
My favorite one is that - through TV and film - architecture has been portrayed as a profitable industry, when in fact, sadly, it’s not. Also, contrary to popular belief, I don’t have a big drafting table set up in my living room (thought that would be pretty nice).
What are some of the everyday struggles with your job that we might not see?
Well, I mentioned communication is a major part of what I do. Basically, my job is to explain to a whole team of other people how I want a building designed - everything from the overall shape and structure to tiny details like electrical outlets and paint colors. And with all that communication via drawings, pictures, models, emails and conversations, a lot definitely does get lost in translation. You have to be super specific about what you’re trying to convey - while not offending anyone who is helping you execute that vision along the way. There can also be some struggles internally when a client wants something and you know it can’t be done their way for whatever reason (legally, with building codes, or best practices, etc.) As it’s my job to help them build their dream building, that can be tough. Our deadlines can be fairly strict as well, so there are a LOT of late nights that pop up.
Do you ever struggle in coming up with new ideas? How do you combat creative blocks?
Definitely! For me I think getting away from my desk is always the first step. Getting some rest as well as time away from the problem I’m having trouble solving always helps. My boyfriend is also an architect, so it’s really great to come home and talk through tough spots with him as well.
How do you stay organized between your many hustles including your outside freelance gigs?
Oof. Sometimes I think I best operate under pressure, but it definitely is tough! In the past few years I’ve been trying out different scales of design work in my spare time to see how I want my career to evolve, and last year I managed to pull off an apartment gut renovation in addition to my day job. I’d work on drawings at night, head to the job site early in the morning to meet with the contractor and walk through any problems, then work from 9-7 and head home to do it all again! I think when I’m doing something I love, the time management comes a bit easier.
What kind of support system do you have behind you and your work?
My family has always been amazingly supportive and encouraged me to pursue my dreams. I know my friends and parents were probably a little sad to see my jet off across the world last year, but they’re definitely still excited for me, and lots are planning to visit! My boyfriend is also an amazing source of continued support, and even though taking this job interrupted our lives in a big way, he was all for it - and even hopped across the pond to live with me in Italy :)
Favorite thing about your job?
I love when a client sees a new space for the first time and wasn’t able to picture it before; the expression on their faces are priceless in those moments!
Of all your travels, were there any particular places that connected you more to your profession?
Definitely. Every time I make a pilgrimage or a particularly difficult journey just to see one building or architectural project, it’s so worth it. Trips of note include a 12 hour bus ride overnight to see the Guggenheim Bilbao in Spain, a winding car journey to get to the Therme Vals in Switzerland, and several planes and a boat to see the Chichu Art Museum in Naoshima, Japan. These places in particular have just been breathtaking examples of what amazing design can bring to a relatively remote location.
How do you find a work-life balance?
I definitely make a point of making time for it. I have to tell myself to leave work at the office, which thankfully I can do most of the time, and then have a transition period between work and home.
What helps you wind down and manage stress?
Cooking! It’s my therapy. And reading. I will devour any and all books. I almost always have to read a little something before going to bed to shut my mind off, be it a book or magazine.
What are some notable (funny, embarrassing, intense) experiences you’ve had on the job?
I have worked on projects that didn’t get built for one reason or another, and it’s always really heartbreaking to see multiple years of hard work effectively go down the drain. My first boss in college once told me that 90% of what we do gets thrown out, and some days I think that is definitely the truth - there’s a lot of reworking in our creative process and that’s unfortunately part of the gig. As for funny, there have been some great cultural difference moments here in Italy - a few weeks ago my boss sat me down with a serious complaint - she’d noticed that I combined my primo (starter) and secondo (entree) at lunch on the same plate, which is a big no-no in Italy.
What’s next for you?
Who knows! Going to ride out this Italy train for a little while and see where it takes me.
What are your goals for the future?
Looking forward to finding a balance between career and a family of my own someday!
Career and/or life advice for other babes?
Go for what you want. Confidence and curiosity will take you very far.
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