The Art of Translation
Jeannette Schram, executive director of AIA Maine, is fluent in the language of architects
Architects are a curious and fascinating breed. They need to be, in order to do such creative and skilled work. You might think that the best person to promote the Maine chapter of the American Institute of Architects’ mission—“celebrating beautiful buildings in the state of Maine”—would be an architect, but that’s not the case. For AIA Maine, the best person for the job isn’t a maker of blueprints but rather a master of words.
Like many of us, Jeannette Schram left college with a diploma but without a clear idea of what to do next. A Mainer by birth, she graduated from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, with a major in journalism. When she was offered a job answering phones at Boston architectural firm Perry Dean Rogers and Partners, she took it. It seemed like a good place for her to gather her thoughts and plan her next move. She didn’t know then that this one decision would shape her entire career.
“I never thought I was going to be a journalist,” she admits. “I was always more interested in how media affects our lives and our perceptions.” Schram’s natural curiosity followed similar channels as she delved deeper into the world of architecture, moving from Perry Dean Rogers to Ann Beha Associates, where she worked in marketing and communications. “I found it so interesting working with architects, because they are so different from me. Many of them knew since the age of five that they wanted to be architects,” she says. Over time, Schram began to notice certain patterns of behavior. “Architects are always striving for perfection, but they also have to deal with deadlines,” she explains. This creates a forward momentum in the workplace that at times can feel almost frantic. Yet she found the energy infectious in a way that became addictive. “When I tried working at other places, it never lived up to that constant push, the desire to make every project better,” she admits.
But perfectionism is just one element of the equation. Schram is also fascinated by how the physical environment can shape our experience of the world. Like media, which filters information through words and images, architecture tints and colors our lives in ways that often go unnoticed. “We spend about 90 percent of our time indoors,” Schram explains, citing a statistic that she recently used in a press release for AIA Maine. “Studies have shown that natural elements in hospitals can improve healing time. If an architect is doing their job right, and taking the current and relevant information into account, then they can truly affect a person’s life in a positive way.” For Schram, the pull toward architecture isn’t about a single designer or even a particularly striking public project. It’s about the bigger picture, the vast and nebulous ways that the built environment intersects with human perception.
While these ideas can sound rather heady and philosophical, Schram has found a way to fold conceptual interests into her work in useful and practical ways. Much of her work at AIA Maine is focused on continuing education for architects. She organizes and promotes programming ranging from tours highlighting the work of local architects to classes that discuss sustainable design. “Architects have the ability to shape our environment in powerful ways,” she says. As the only staff member at AIA Maine, it is Schram’s job to make sure they have the tools to “tick all the boxes” for every project in their queue. “It’s not enough that a building is beautiful. It also has to be accessible and environmentally conscious. As executive director, I have to be able to see the bigger picture,” she explains. While many architects will focus on the details, Schram’s position as something of an outsider in the profession gives her the ability to zoom out and identify the ways in which AIA Maine can help advance the entire industry.
Rob Tillotson, president of AIA Maine and founder and president of Maine architecture firm Oak Point Associates, says that Schram’s work is instrumental in “keeping our work fresh.” While many states require architects to complete courses to maintain their license, the State of Maine doesn’t have that stipulation. But AIA Maine does. “Architects can improve the world in a way that treads lightly on the environment, so a lot of our work at AIA Maine is focused on reducing energy costs and demands,” Tillotson says. “It’s a constant educational process.” Not only does Schram keep AIA Maine moving forward by helping organize and schedule classes, but she also represents Maine on a national level, attending conferences in Detroit and Washington, D.C. “Jeannette is wonderful,” says Tillotson. “But I won’t say too many nice things about her since I don’t want another organization stealing her.”
Although Schram doesn’t describe herself as an artist or visual creator, she clearly appreciates good design. Her home on Munjoy Hill is filled with framed art, funky succulents, and fantastic little papier-mâché sculptures created by her husband, an architect named Eric Stark, and their two young children. Even with all these pieces of eye candy, her home feels clean and orderly—a function of her personality, she explains. “My husband loves things, but I gravitate towards minimalism,” she says. When asked about her favorite examples of design, she explains that she doesn’t always think visually, but rather about how a place feels. “I notice whenever I enter a space whether it feels right. Some spaces make you feel welcome and content, while others feel boxed off,” she says. She particularly loves to be in public spaces that show thoughtful design. “I have two small kids, so I spend a lot of time at the Portland Public Library,” she says. “It’s such a beautiful and democratic space. Everyone is welcome there, and you see people from all walks of life who are able to enjoy this really gorgeously designed place.”
And this is perhaps the most important thing about Schram: she makes architecture sound marvelous. When she talks, you get swept into the discussion, compelled by her curious nature and clear passion for intelligent, accessible design. “Architects are not always the most verbal people,” she says. “It’s a different skill set. I see things differently than most architects.” Her background in journalism and marketing has given her a strong toolbox for promoting Maine design, but Schram does more than just serve as a mouthpiece. She is able to identify the effects of good design and verbalize them, translating the sensation of stepping into a beautiful place into words. Like light streaming in through a window, she illuminates concepts, making good design (and the good feeling it induces) feel attainable.