OUR TAKE Laura Materna
My Consulting Career at 7 Years Old

A Mother’s Day tribute to working moms, dogs, and silly creative pursuits

I like to joke that I grew up in an office. That’s because, well, I did. Around the time I was born, my mom opened ARCH2, Inc.—her own consulting firm in historic preservation. Translation: my childhood sandbox was filled with office supplies. So it only makes sense that by the time I was 7, my sister and I established our own historic preservation firm but for dogs — ARF 2, Inc.

In retrospect, I can see how this whole office-meets-dog thing came about. My mom’s company moved from our basement into a real downtown office (a few blocks away). There was a big beanbag chair in the corner for our hanging-out purposes. We were fascinated with dogs at the time, a fact that likely coincided with getting one; Oatmeal the miniature poodle puppy joined our family and quickly adopted the beanbag chair as his own.

oatmeal materna
Oatmeal Materna assuming his new position at the office

Incubator space and puppy love

What began as amusing ourselves after school grew into a full-fledged fictitious company, one with our own letterhead, mailing labels, office supplies, and donated pictures of ARCH2 pets. While my sister and I were the founders (and the only actual employees), our four-legged companions occupied the top of the corporate ladder: Oatmeal acted as President, with family friend dachshunds Otto and Oscar as VPs.

Our two family companies ran in parallel. When my mom’s company grew into a larger space, we earned the independence of being around the corner from Mom. We worked on similar projects too, considering all ARF2 report material was in the scrap paper pile before we started digging for gold.

One of the most official-looking pages we rescued from the recycle bin was a map covered with lines and arrows. This map is how I learned what my mom does for a living. She explained to us that each number with an arrow represented a historic building she had photographed, and the outline on the map was called the A-P-E, or the Area of Potential Effects. “Your work is about an ape?!” I asked, and promptly broke out into giggles.

There were no primates involved. But we understood that any historic building in that area could be affected if a modern construction was within sight. Lo and behold, that APE format stuck. Soon we were churning out report atfter report to evaluate the impact of a proposed construction or demolition on the historic “barkitecture” of our fictitious dog-based world, Bonearea.

ARF2 report
Excerpts from an ARF2 report

The projects themselves varied — from the preservation of a dog park to the nomination of a community fire hydrant as a historic landmark. All proper nouns from my mom’s reports were renamed: when my mom’s report for AT&T surveyed a cell tower construction, we worked for Play T & T surveying the Dog Food District of Bonearea. And when we found a project for NJ TRANSIT? Our project became “New Jak-Russel Transit and the Little Boxer Bridge.” This renaming applied to every detail of the report, so Maple Lane became Leash Lane and so on and so forth. The integrity of the final product was important to us even at that age; we kept closely to the structure of my mom’s reports, and Kathryn acted as Quality Control to ensure that Leash Lane and other major landmarks in Bonearea were referenced consistently from one project to another. We poured into our projects all of the same care and dedication my mom did, but with the assurance that we were having more fun.

Our business model was simple. For the most part, Mom was our client. She (or her recycling bin) would give us a project idea. We would spend the next few days or weeks after school planning our next project—scavenging for material, dutifully researching dog breeds, and coming up with puns. Our production process was always the same: Dig for ARF2-worthy scraps, sift through our stashed collection of raw materials to find the best images for the project at hand, and write captions accordingly. We would tape the images and caption strips onto our recycle bin findings, and then make a clean photocopy of each Franken-page for our final report. This was our best method of word processing, since we didn’t have a designated computer but we did have somewhat unguarded access to the copier. If the report was a momentous one, we could (with supervision) use the fancy machine to produce a polished, bound report, with a clear cover page and cardstock backing.

After all the hard work was complete and the canine landmark had been saved, we would run to Mom’s desk, beaming ear-to-ear, and hand her the final product. Depending on its scope and the state of Mom’s wallet at the time, our revenue for each report could range from a few singles to a coveted five-dollar bill, which would go immediately into our secretive ARF2 savings jar.

Though I don’t fully remember doing this, if there was no work in the pipeline we started approaching my mom’s employees to ask if they had any pet-related projects to assign us. Fortunately, they were happy to play along. Behind closed doors, there was a system in place wherein the two or three dollars we so confidently expected in compensation would be repaid to them in full by my mother at a later time. We weren’t afraid to enter new markets when we needed to; one such newfound client was more of a cat person than a dog person, so we adjusted the report accordingly.

At the height of our business endeavors, we had moved up in the world to our own office (the downstairs kitchen). It was here that our best work was born, sitting on red bar stools at a wall-mounted table, the Xerox machine and its neighboring recycle bin within sight. To our left was our very own locking, two-drawer filing cabinet. We had hand-selected and proudly paid for the purple hanging folders that housed our most official records, stationery, and works in progress. The world was at our fingertips, and as far as we knew, all the result of our own hard work and business savvy.

ARF2 2
Official business collateral (pre-graphic design career) along with a convincing client recommendation.

Life lessons from Leash Lane

This business stayed in operation for a solid 2 or 3 years. We moved offices twice — whenever my mom did of course. I don’t think it ever occurred to us that ARF2’s booming expansion was due entirely to my mom’s business success. During those years we enjoyed a first-hand glimpse at my mom’s profession and professionalism, and somewhere along the lines inherited the same love for old buildings. There came a time, as my older sister recalls, that I was the one clearly more excited about the dog puns and other ARF2 operations. But that period was short-lived, and soon enough both of us had outgrown our childhood consulting gig. When ARF2 was no more, that not-so-secretive money went back to Mom in the form of weekday lunches.

I suppose some element of copying one’s parents is only natural; I’m both proud and fortunate to have an expert-in-her-field, client-facing boss to look up to and call Mom. Nowadays I hear stories about my coworkers’ kids and their own crafty forms of imitation, and I can’t help but smile knowing they’re off to a good start. So many elements of this experience have stuck with me, some sillier than others: I still like puns, and I still love dogs. I’ve developed an aesthetic appreciation for paper and office supplies that in all likelihood surpasses the norm. I learned the difference between affect and effect at a young enough age to make it second nature. And most importantly, I started my career feeling right at home being in an office—piecing together a product, and approaching clients with my bona-fide (pun intended) hard work.

laura materna headshotAt the time of writing, ARF2 co-founder Laura Materna works at DigitasLBi (on Arch Street, coincidentally) as a Senior Experience Designer. When she’s not peppering Slack with puns, her wireframing work surely draws on her experience arranging photos and text. ARF2 co-founder Kathryn Materna is working on her PhD in Geophysics at UC Berkeley, studying earthquakes along the San Andreas fault. To the best of the author’s understanding, this involves some form of numbers and arrows on a map. Now-retired ARF2 president Oatmeal Materna is turning 17 this year and still loves his beanbag chair.

 Originally featured on Stop, Drop, & Scroll