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5th Black
eter Vattanatham’s parents came to the United States from Thailand to further their
education. They arrived separately, with plans to return home at the end of their studies.
Then they met, fell in love, and decided to build a life in America. Peter Vattanatham
entered the world soon after, in the summer of 1973. “At the time, my parents had fifty dollars
to their name. Well, that and me,” he says with a smile. “I was very lucky to have a mom who
was artistic in her own right, who guided and supported me. My father would have rather seen
me be a doctor or lawyer.” His father was supportive, but “I don’t think it really hit him that
art was possible as a career until after I graduated college and started working.”
YPERSTIMULATION “Throughout school, I knew I was good at art—I was always
drawing and doodling when I should have been paying attention in class—but I really
didn’t know how to channel it into a career choice. My mom was planting seeds,
buying Architectural Digest in the hopes that I might be an architect—another high-profile, well-
paying profession. She also introduced me to several of her friends who did design. But in
the back of my head, I always felt that this was something I needed to figure out on my own.”
Vattanatham attended classes at Pasadena’s Art Center College of Design, which were designed
to introduce high school students to the program. “They offered advertising, graphic design,
transportation design, illustration, fine art—I tried almost all of them.” But Vattanatham did not
return to Art Center after graduating from high school. Instead, he enrolled at the University
of California in Los Angeles. “Part of it was wanting to have the big college experience, part of it
was still being unsure of what I wanted to do, and part of it was to satisfy my parents’ desire
for a diploma from a known school.”
“UCLA was good for many things, but most importantly, it’s where I met my wife, Fiel Valdez
[p.204]. At the time, however, UCLA was restructuring its design program, and it screwed a lot
of things up.” The school would go on to lock out its design students for the next two years.
“Fiel went to Art Center instead to study photography, and I later followed, to study advertising.”
ONASTIC INTERLUDE Before rejoining Valdez, however, Vattanatham traveled to
Thailand to live as a monk. “When Thai males turn twenty, they can opt to spend
a season [three months] as a monk. They learn what it means to live that lifestyle, learn
tradition, learn humility, and learn more about the lessons of Buddhism. They also bring good
fortune or karma to their family through this act. My dad had done it and his dad before him.
It’s hard to say exactly what direct influence that experience had on my work, because so many
things were affecting me at the time. I definitely feel that it changed my viewpoints and my
approach to things. It was also a good work-ethic primer. People think Art Center is hard, but
I guarantee that being a monk is harder.”
RT CENTER Returning to school, Vattanatham encountered three teachers who changed
his views further: Roland Young, who “erased that line dividing advertising and design,”
and the master and apprentice team of Mark Fenske and Geoff McGann. “They taught
me that advertising didn’t have to be the formulaic ‘headline + visual,’” Fittingly, this thought
would become both headline and visual in an ad Vattanatham created for the school years later.
Peter Vattanatham is an artist who has found a home in the
commercial realm. Using his playful mind, sharp eye, and
dogged optimism, he has infiltrated the advertising machine and—
by pushing the boundaries of the medium with his personal
aesthetic experiments and insights—is steadily reprogramming it
to do his bidding.
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