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Trail Blazin’ | An Interview with STUDIO 397’s Samantha Josaphat

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Passion and the courage to take risks have taken Samantha Josaphat from a corporate machine to a creator navigating her way to success as Principal of her own firm, Studio 397. With a strong desire to explore her creativity Samantha invested in herself and left a corporate architecture firm to blaze her own trail.  Samantha shared her journey, insights and dreams in this Q&A with MiND!

What led you to starting your own firm?

 I’d been working for about 5  years when I got my Architect license . I started getting frustrated with the corporate environment because I couldn’t be as creative as I wanted to be. There were too many cooks in the kitchen.  I felt like I was in more meetings than I was doing architecture.  At one point I was working crazy ridiculous hours and even though I liked the work I was doing, I couldn’t appreciate it because I was always on to the next project and at some point I felt like everyone else was appreciating architecture more than I was. I studied this for so long and I took all these exams, I needed to love architecture and I didn’t want to fall out of love with it. It became mechanic, I felt like a machine. I didn’t have the human experience and connection with it anymore so I realized I needed  to change it up and try something new for a new result. I decided to take more control, because I had that tool, my license, so I was able to go out on my own and start my practice. It’s pretty great. A year and half later I’m like “hey, this worked out”.

“I told myself that it's going to be a journey, it’s going to take time, and be ready for anything. I think with the freedom that I've given myself, I'm okay with bumps in the road and the obstacles because I have so much energy and excitement for what's coming up.”

How did you come up with the name for STUDIO 397? 

I wanted the name of my firm not to be traditional. I wanted it to be a studio where we are exploring new innovative ideas and going past traditional practice. Studio 397 came for me becoming the 397th licensed living black female Architect in all of the United States. To know that I’m 397 out of all black female architect is pretty crazy. It’s like a percentage of 0.3% out of all architects in the US.  When I was taking my exams I would think about if I were to have a firm what would the name be. I would come up with all these names and put them on my fridge. Then, when I found out about my number, I said to myself this is going to be the name of my firm.

What has been the biggest lesson you’ve learned in founding your own studio?

I was hesitant to tell my architecture community that I was going out on my own because I didn’t want the buzz. I wanted to just go and do it on my own, but a majority of my first clients have come from other architects- which is interesting. Because I went on my own and I was the small firm, there were a lot of projects that architects would get that were too small for their office, so they passed it on to me. I ended up letting go of that whole ‘I don’t want to tell anyone what I’m doing’ and started to make more of a presence for myself and started saying. “this is what I am doing, accept it.”

People would always tell me it’ll slowly build itself up. Once you get one client, slowly but surely, that will become two and four and five and so on

“I'm just here for the climb.”

What do you hope for the future of STUDIO 397?

 Now that I’m on my own I work with a lot of local brands. I have one client that is a celebrity hairstylist and one is a small co-working space. I do commercial and residential. The majority of my work has been commercial retail because of my portfolio, which I don’t mind, but I’ve been venturing out into residential, both single family and mixed use as well.

Exploring how fashion can influence architecture on different scales, is another design approach STUDIO 397 is taking on. I want to see it in New York but I also want to see it done Tanzania or Haiti. I really want to emphasize how fashion, sustainability, and architecture intertwine.

I would love to work with COS again. Balmain is another brand I would love to work with. I want to create a store that is innovative with time. Maybe it’s a brand that uses technology with fashion- being able to work with a company like that where I’m that architecture piece coming in.

Another thing I would love for STUDIO 397 to be involved in, is to work on a cultural institution projects in a public space which has the financial backing. You find out really quickly that finance drives design a lot of times but to use innovative materials and explore, you have to have that financial backing. A lot of times there is this brilliant idea but what dials it back down is financing.

“I feel like an architect is someone who has to be experienced and cultured in so many different things. If you train yourself only within this little box are you really an architect or are you a machine?”

What are your thoughts on the retail industry today?

After every storm there’s a calm and with the storm of online retail increasing, we are now in a time of figuring out how as designers can bring people back in the space and also how we bring the community back together. At some point if we are all in our homes on our computers, we are isolating ourselves from the world. I believe retail can solve that problem by creating a community and providing that in-person interaction again.

With our culture I think technology is important. It’s a push and pull. So many companies are going online now so you don’t have as many brick and mortars, but then people want these experiences. With the presence that social media has now, people want to be seen somewhere. I think that is something the retail industry can look at. They are looking at ways to bring people back into the stores, so what does it mean to have a pop up shop, or what does it mean to have a permanent space that changes with time so that you stay relevant with technology but are still pushing your merchandise. Every industry, because technology is moving so fast, has to be innovative. Opening your office or your store to new ideas outside of the main thing you do is a way to bring people in.

What I like about retail is that the design touches more people. Residential projects are more personal and is based on the client saying “this is what I like and this is what I need,” then you have to provide suggestions and solutions for how to make that happen. In retail you really explore the idea of how you merge merchandise and experience within a space. It’s being able to play with more materials and lighting- I find I’m able to do that more in commercial retail work, as it helps to build a company’s brand by diving into that world of pushing a brand through design.

What is your main source of inspiration?

I draw inspiration from fashion. I try to pay attention to it a lot. I’m trying to give myself time to explore. I volunteered during fashion week and was backstage helping with production for a fashion show- seeing how things are put together and seeing what’s in the back of the designers mind and being able to explore through fashion how lines connect and how they sit in certain situations. It’s just like a space. It’s how you use these different existing conditions, textures and patterns to create.

What do you consider your design philosophy?

‘Less is more’ is my design philosophy. I find it in the work I do, I find it in how I dress, I find it in how I hold meetings. I also schedule time to have this more loose aspect of being able to be creative and explore. Sometimes I don’t have everything planned out but I purposely don’t plan certain things out and purposely plan other things out. Less is more isn’t always a very bland and simple space- it’s just paying attention to certain textures that you really want to put an emphasis on or certain lightning to make more of a grand appearance. You don’t want to do too much and overwhelm someone.

“Learn to not be fearful of things but to be ready for fear and conquer things as they come.”

Do you have any advice that you’d like to share?

I would say learn as much as you can and be okay to test your own gut feelings. I really believe that creativity comes from so many different levels and if you only have creativity come from one particular level of a company, you are only going to produce one type of work. Be confident in your thoughts.

By: Sarah Elaine Rossi