The Alchemy of Space

by Christie Chisholm, LocalFlavor Magazine, October 2011

Lisa Samuel wanted to change her world. At 19, the Santa Fe native found herself divorced and a mother of two. “I knew I needed to do something to make my life work,” she says. “And I knew I couldn’t do it here.”

With dreams of designing, Samuel packed up her small children and moved to San Diego, where she lived on welfare for two years while studying architecture and construction at The American College. When she finished, she moved back to Santa Fe and tried to find a job with an architect. “But it was the late ’70s,” she says. “I was young and I was a woman. I couldn’t get an architect to hire me.”

Samuel made her living for years working for civil and mechanical engineers, but the job never satisfied her; she longed for something more creative. She found some release in raising her by then three children. When they were grown, she went back to school at Santa Fe Community College, this time studying interior design. Even then, in her 40s, her path wasn’t smooth. In order to maintain scholarship money, she had to go to school full-time, and she did that while continuing to work full-time and take care of her second husband, who had gone legally blind (they’ve since divorced). Somehow, in the same breath, she started her own business, the Samuel Design Group. 

Today Samuel has the air of someone who’s found her dream. Sitting in an office flooded with natural light, the white walls juxtaposed with exuberantly polychromatic abstract paintings, she looks a little like a queen who has finally found her empire—a queen, that is, with Buddy Holly glasses and black hair streaked with silver. She’s frank about her past because she’s proud of it and because it’s deeply influenced the way she runs her business. “I don’t see things as obstacles very easily,” she says. “If I wanted something specific, I would just make it happen.”

That philosophy runs through every vein of her interior design firm, which has been open since 2002 and has worked on homes throughout northern New Mexico and up into Colorado. It’s most readily apparent through the the artisans and craftsmen she commissions for her work, who are all local. “It’s about supporting the community,” she says, “and more so the community that belongs to me, or that I belong to.” Samuel makes a point of finding whatever she’s looking for close to home. She recalls only one time in her firm’s nine-year-history when she went outside this rule, flying in an artist from California to paint a table for a client. 

Otherwise, Samuel is strict about staying within the local economy. She sees it as a way of helping to shepherd the aspirations of likeminded souls. “I know what it’s like to struggle. And a lot of creative people have a life path of somehow working in a way that expresses their creativity,” she says. “Many of them work for themselves. I love supporting that.”

From a practical perspective, relying on artisans and craftsmen who are nearby provides other advantages, like being able to keep an eye on projects as they develop. “If it’s something that’s done far away, I can’t be there to watch it grow,” she says, adding that when she commissions a piece, she has specific ideas about the outcome and wants to be around to help guide it. 

Samuel’s employees follow the same guidelines. The two other designers at her firm are Jennifer Ashton and Leonardo Baca. Her husband, Les Samuel, acts as her business consultant and comes from a 35-year history of working in high-end women’s wear (the two met when she hired him as her business coach). Although Samuel oversees every project at the firm as its owner, each designer also brings a unique aesthetic to her or his projects. While Samuel refers to her own as an “organic sensibility” that features clean lines and simple forms, she says Ashton’s centers on “bold and more exotic flavors” and calls Baca’s “clean and tailored.” 

What Samuel likes most about the designers’ different approaches is the collaboration that comes from joining them together. She also wants people to question her and not be afraid to disagree. “If no one challenges you, you don’t stretch,” she says. That’s one of the biggest qualities she looks for in the artists she works with as well—the ability to speak their mind. 

Even though Samuel works exclusively with local artisans and craftsmen, she doesn’t consider her work classically Santa Fean—at least, not in the way that many people interpret Santa Fe style. “People think it’s all Native American and bright colors,” she says. “I interpret it as nature-inspired, ethnic-inspired to a point. ... A blend of Mexican, Native American, Victorian and Spanish influences.” Samuel likes to design for that style with a modern twist, using her aforementioned clean lines as much as possible. The designs she creates and the work she gets from local artists can fit any style, though, she says. Ultimately what matters is “creating spaces that are wonderful and inspiring from something ordinary and uninspiring,” she says. “That has been my life.”

Growing up as the ninth child in a large Catholic family, privacy was hard to come by. She found ways to express herself and create something personal by carving out whatever small spaces she could find. “It’s all about making you feel a certain way,” she says, referring to the art of design as “the alchemy of space.”

Samuel believes she got to where she is because of her father, who she calls the biggest influence on her life. “My father had a couple of things that he taught me that really play into my life every single day,” she says. “One is there’s more than one way to do things and accomplish the same result. And the other is you can do anything as long as you have the right tools.”