Co-Op Talk: Paige Michutka @ Dan Pearlman
said by: Caroline Bozzi
We are excited to present a new series of #CoopTalks this semester. This interview series provides an opportunity for students to share co-op experiences with students, faculty, staff and beyond. We speak to fellow students who we collectively admire to hear what co-op means to them and the insight into what has contributed to their growth as a student at The School of Architecture and Interior Design at DAAP.
Next up in our series is Paige Michutka, fourth year B.S. architecture student. Here is an edited conversation with Paige about working at Dan Pearlman in Berlin and how working abroad has changed her outlook. Paige has worked at Marmol Radziner in L.A. for two co-op semesters and then Dan Pearlman last summer before studying in Stuttgart for the fall semester. What I found so unique about Paige’s experience at SAID is that she was able to group her experiences together in a way that she spent more time working and living in less places than many other students. Sometimes co-ops are a prolonged vacation, but Paige’s experiences breach a new and different type of tourism.
Check back for our next interview in this series or read our previous interviews here.
How did you wind up in Berlin?
It kind of happened by accident. When I applied for jobs in the spring I applied for jobs mostly in Seattle and then two odd balls: Dan Pearlman in Berlin and Brigada in Croatia. I heard back from the Seattle firm and the Berlin firm within the first week. Dan Pearlman interviewed me that week and then offered me a job the second week. I was thinking “.... what’s happening?!?!?”
They really liked me because of the work that I did at Marmol [Radziner]. They wanted me for my specific work experience.
Once I had the job, getting the work permit was the hardest thing. I hired a nonprofit, called Cultural Vistas, to help me. I basically paid them to tell me all of the paperwork that I needed to fill out. And then the next part was figuring out what I had to do in what order because it is very specific in Germany. I received the work permit so now I could go to Germany. Then I had to register my address with the city so that I could apply for my visa. And then I could open a bank account. I had to do all of it really quickly in order to get paid. AND on top of all of it, everything was in German and the people I needed help from only spoke German. It was a struggle.
I know Marmol has construction people. Is there a construction group at Dan Pearlman?
They are just getting it started. The project team was the project manager, me and then two other people who are architects with construction experience. I started a lot of the projects, developed them schematically and then handed them off to the people with construction experience to finish when I left. I designed my own projects. It was crazy - as an expat, as a co-op. I was the first person they ever hired from UC.
Did people speak English at the firm?
They spoke German. My computer software was in German. I learned SketchUp in German. It was rough. But everyone spoke English when they spoke to me. But if nobody was speaking to me, it was all German all the time.
Did you know German?
I didn't know German. But now I am a level below fluent. I am taking classes now. When I moved to Stuttgart, we took German classes every day for four hours from the first five weeks. Everything came full circle for me. From being forced to learn to actually learning it.
Where did you live?
Finding housing was really difficult. I lived with a family that I found on Airbnb. I FaceTimed with them three or four times before I went. But, they were really helpful. The mom took me to the town hall to register my address. Everyone has to register their address within two weeks so they can keep track of everyone.
What was a typical day? Did you notice a cultural difference?
After talking to people in Germany who didn't have design jobs, I realized that Germans separate their work and personal life. They would never go out to lunch with their co-workers or go out after work with their co-workers. In a way, 'work is work and you are not friends with those people.' But at my job, everyone was friends. My project manager took me out to lunch all the time and we would go out after work. We did fun office trips. We went canoeing. I think design firms are the same across cultures.
The structure of my hours was lenient as long as I got seven hours in a day. I could come in at 11:00 AM and work really late or come in really early so that I could leave early to fly somewhere for the weekend.
How many people were in the office?
Sixty [maybe]. They had so many different teams and roles: industrial, graphic and interior designers in addition to architecture. Interior architecture is huge there. There was a lot of interesting things happening in the office. One thing they were doing was rebranding Jägermeister. There were people redesigning their bottles, their logo and new pop up stores and events for them. That was interesting to see.
That’s unique. While you are working on apartments people around you are working on something totally different. I am sure at Marmol you walk around and everyone is working on different houses. Did you feel prepared for this co-op? I ask specifically because you went back to the same co-op your second time.
I think it was harder for me because of that. I went back to Marmol for the second co-op so I was really comfortable. And then I was super uncomfortable. I think the first month was really hard because of the language barrier. They understood. They would give a drawing and I would warn them, 'it is going to take me three times as long because I have to look up all the words." But they were patient and they just wanted to me to get into it. Then the learning curve caught up to me and I was able to produce really quickly. But I was prepared.
What did you like the most about working there?
I loved figuring out things that I never knew I wanted to do, like learn German or live in Germany. I am going back after graduation. And I never thought I would want to live in Germany.
With international co-ops, you not only gain professional experience but you learn a lot personally because you worked in an unfamiliar culture. You did something that there is no instruction manual for. That said, in what ways did you grow?
I have learned that there are other ways of living and I have learned a new way in interacting with other people. They are very professional. Even just the way Germans construct emails is really different. There is a structure. There is a certain intro and greeting depending on who you are emailing. When the Germans arrived here, Hank emailed them, he wrote, "Hi All," and then wrote a blurb and signed it "H" which he normally does. The German students asked me, "Why didn't he introduce himself and say Hi to us in this email." I explained that this email was typical and scrolled through other emails in my inbox for them to see.
Overall, there are so many things I questions now that I am back. It's super weird. And it’s fun to experience that with the Germans that are studying abroad here now.
What are they the best at?
I think the office culture was amazing. We had lunch all the time and breakfast once a month where they would introduce new people. They had a lot of workshops. The name of the firm is really cute. Dan Pearlman is not a real person. It is a make-believe person who represents the collective aspiration - they want to be this Dan Pearlman "perfect person" so they refer to all their employees as "Dan." They really play into it, for example, when someone left cookies in the Kitchen, someone would email the group, "There are cookies on the table in the kitchen from Dan."
I think a lot of times when firms hire people abroad, they will hire 2 people to make it more comfortable. I know people were co-oping in Italy, Antwerp and Croatia and there were 2 people at each firm. I was the only one who was completely alone in a city, which I think was a complete different experience. I was doing everything by myself whereas they had a buddy. That was really hard. But also these students became my best friends because they understood my struggles. It was a really large contrast from my experience in Stuttgart, where I had 9 friends from UC. I went from no friends to so many friends.
Can you speak about a particular struggle?
Going to the grocery was horrendous in Germany. You bag all of your own stuff. You can get a grocery cart full of food. Then they scan it and just start throwing it and you have to get it up really fast. If you are not fast enough then they just start the next person. It is horrible to go grocery shopping. I felt accomplished when I took the right train, the right way.
I mean that’s even an accomplishment in New York - so never mind when you can't read the signs. Did you get paid?
I received a monthly stipend of 450 Euros, which was less than my rent so I was automatically not making any money. It was good that I didn't get paid as much because that is the threshold. If you get paid more than that in Germany, you have to pay 60% of your income as taxes. They were helping me out by not paying me as much. They were doing what they could - but I would definitely pay for the experience the entire time I was there.
What is their design process?
They have 4 words that they approach every problem with: Discover, Dream, Develop, Do. They are very proud of this process because everyone approaches every situation in the same way. Discover was about asking what is the challenge. Dream was about asking what is the best solution. This is when they make up the most ridiculous ideas. Develop was about asking what is the best solution for the real world. And Do was about making it happen. They were strict about this process. They love this: “Our Guiding Process 4D's Describe the Dan Way of Doing.”
Can you give an example of the how they followed this process?
My boss would tell me to do weirder stuff all the time. I did a lot of typical square massing. He would tell me to look at the roof pitches because he wanted me to try everything before we picked. And in the end a lot of the ideas ended up being a mix of the 'dream' scenario and the 'develop' scenario. Germans love taking their time. No project felt rushed in the office there, which is very different than working at Marmol which is the most rushed place you could ever work at. They would say, "Oh you are not done with this, but its 5. Go home! We will figure it out tomorrow." They will tell the client that they have to wait and everyone is just okay with it.
So now, I take my time. But I get my work done. That is what I learned in Germany: I deserve not to be stressed all the time. They always say, "Don't Stress!" And now I feel more laid back in DAAP now which is nice.
If you're interested in telling your own co-op story, fill out this form and Re:SAID will contact you!