Song Of Myself: Meg and Chad Gleason of Design Studio Moglea

 In ALIVE, Interiors, People

The seasons are pronounced in Audubon, Iowa, where the population hovers around 2,000. Winter is a blur of snow; fall is for crunching leaves; spring lifts unadulterated new life out of the ground; and now, the end of summer, is like a poem of green space. Crickets nestle their tiny bodies into the grass, chirping with mighty gusto, and nothing but life cycles of foliage stretch for miles around Meg Gleason, a young woman with brunette sideswept bangs, artist’s hands and the lion heart of a mother.

She lives here with her husband, Chad Gleason, and together they co-run the brand Moglea, under which they churn out letterpress stationery, paper and home goods. Meticulously crafted journals, notes, paintings, inspirational quotes, furniture, birthday cards and more are created at the Moglea studio, each with the feel of a personalized piece of art. What began in the basement of a farmhouse has since grown into a robust studio and business, with 15 full-time employees.

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“Our marriage and family life is a very natural give and take between the two of us and our kids,” says Chad. They have two children, Ev and Shepard, ages five and seven, whom they adopted from Kinshasa in the Congo. “We have a great understanding that there are seasons for everything. Sometimes we have to give a little more than we’d like, or work a lot more than we want to, but we continue to have a deep, deep love for each other.”

Both Chad and Meg, who met in design school at Iowa State University, did not originally expect to settle back in their home state. After graduating into the bleak job market of the late 2000’s, Chad had lined up a job in New York City that fell through, and Meg was laid off from the design agency where she worked. After a prolonged time of little luck finding creative jobs, Chad’s parents informed the couple that they’d be expanding their family farm in Audubon, and suggested that they move home to help run it. With 2,000 cattle and 3,000 hogs on 2,500 acres of land, plus soybeans and corn, they needed all the help they could get.

The Gleasons returned to Audubon in 2009 and bought a printing press the next month, where Meg experimented with letterpress and card designs while Chad worked long hours on the farm. Their home is now a short walk from the Moglea studio, which Chad designed and built, a marvel of homey warmth and modern architecture. As Meg creaks open the back door, dusky light reflects off of the porch furniture. “It’s so bright!” she exclaims, surprised. For Meg, Chad crafted a corner office with large windows, with natural light that floods the space. “It’s an immense blessing to get to work in a space that your partner dreamed up. I love that it has tons of windows, revealing the beautiful countryside that surrounds us.”

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It was building the Moglea studio that served as Chad’s most ardent design training, reigniting his passion. “That opportunity taught me a lot about what I was trying to do with design,” he says. “It gave me confidence in my abilities, just to see that massive project come to life. It also continues to give me confidence in my taste, because years later I still like it. Most things that I create, I dislike within a couple of weeks.”

It’s now where Meg develops designs for cards and stationery, continuing to experiment with letterpress and dip-dye techniques, among others. At first, her goal was to craft the kind of pieces that no one else was making, which led her to make her own organic dyes from tea and pigmented vegetables—like beets and spinach. She also developed collage cards in which she’d cut out different mat papers, and letter press over the top. That, as she recalls, is when the line truly came together.

The prospect of owning her own business not only seemed feasible, but almost inevitable. Her parents divorced when she was young, and her mother, a salon owner, raised her. “I grew up with a single parent, and all I knew was a self-employed woman in my life. It made perfect sense to me that I would have my own business. It felt like the only option to me,” she says. Even so, as she and her siblings grew and became drawn to an array of disciplines, Meg remembers she was not the one cast as “the artist” in her family. Rather, it was her sister Mary, a painter.

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“We often get labels in our families, and I was never really known as the artist,” she says—though Mary recognized her obsession with calligraphy and lettering, and encouraged her to drop the degree in dentistry she’d planned to pursue. “My parents were always like, ‘You get great math and science grades. You should be some type of doctor.’ But it was my sister who saw those strengths in me and told me about the design program at Iowa State. She introduced me to her graphic designer friends and I was hooked.” Previously, Meg hadn’t even considered pursuing a creative degree, which is also what brought her to Chad.

In 2012, after experimenting with hand-painting, dip-dying and letterpress paper goods, Meg took 30 of her designs and a small catalog to the National Stationery Show in New York. It was there that her uncommon approach garnered the attention of retail giant Anthropologie, who purchased her custom birthday cards. “Since that connection, we’ve just grown.”

Among other changes brought about by the business, it is the boss mentality—cultivated by managing employees—that she aims to leave at work. “Being a boss changes you,” she says—though how that change would manifest was unprecedented, particularly in conversation. “You can be more abrasive and matter-of-fact at times. It changes how you talk to people.” It has also led her to confront the dichotomy of thinking as both an artist and business owner. Instead of just seeing beautiful objects, she now grapples with the next step of how to produce multiples for a good margin. Though, still, for every product release, she spends between 40 and 50 hours just painting, with meditative, painterly strokes that celebrate the medium, the brush stroke and the visceral feel of the material poking up from the page.

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Chad’s transition into full-time work with Moglea also yielded his very first chair design and the development of a prototype. “It’s quiet,” he says of rural Iowa—except for the crickets and cicadas. “There aren’t a lot of distractions. It feels a bit easier to be honest with yourself about what you’re doing with your life when there aren’t as many things to pull away your attention.”

For both of them, working together has been a fulfilling extension of their relationship. It was originally how they bonded in design school, spending large chunks of time working on projects together. “The biggest hardships were in the years Chad had to farm. I know he felt a lot of sorrow in not being able to help me more with Moglea at that time,” says Meg. “The amount of hours he worked to help design the studio at night and on the weekends—he was working double-time with me.”

Myriad scraps and small tools can also be found throughout the studio, often put to use by their two young children, who are at an age of discovering their own creativity. You could find them during the work day building an inexplicable something with cardboard and boxes or pretending to package cards, like other Moglea employees. “Ev pretends to ‘work’ at Moglea at least half of the time she is here,” Meg says. She and Chad have them clock in on the weekends and assign them small tasks for which they get paid, like cleaning desks, sweeping the floors and unpackaging cards, to build a sense of ownership and responsibility.

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“We basically met the kids when Moglea started, so we’ve really run Moglea with Ev and Shepard every step of the way,” says Meg. Her Instagram feed is full of pictures of them: skiing, dressing up in costumes,attending carnivals, playing, building, drawing, painting and exploring. The curated, uplifting photography belies the painful circumstances by which they came into the world. In one of Meg’s favorite images of Ev, she writes, “This photo is so Ev. Shehas had this intensely sweet, trusting spirit in her from the moment they handed her to me in Congo.”

Today, people frequently ask whether Ev and Shepard are brother and sister, which they are—just not biologically. “All we know is it doesn’t take matching genes to be a family,” says Meg. Getting pregnant had proven difficult, and they adopted the two young children when Shepard was two and a half years old and Ev was 10 months. “Ev doesn’t remember anything about that time,” says Meg. “Shepherd has a few memories that are pretty sad. But he doesn’t remember anything about his birth family that would give us indication of his story.”

Social services had found him wandering the streets of Kinshasa, the country’s capital, with no parents and no family. Ravaged by war, conflict and poverty, it’s not uncommon to find orphans who live on the street, called street children, or “shegués.” Ev, then a six-week-old baby, was also found on the street with no family.

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“You can’t imagine how something like that could happen until you see it all firsthand,” says Meg. “But if you go there, then it makes sense. Once you see the corruption, and the intensity of the poverty there—it’s really, really sad. But we’re so grateful we got to go, and that we were able to see where they’re from.” Upon seeing it firsthand, the overwhelmed feeling was enduring. Trash was everywhere; at night, the lack of street lights rendered it ominously dark, and people lived in shacks or shabby cinder-block dwellings. “It was so dense with people that you can see how easily a baby could be laid down on the ground and no one would notice,” says Meg. “It’s a third-world country unlike anything we’ve ever seen and experienced. It’s hard to explain.”

When she and Chad met the children for the first time and took them home, Shepard was old enough
to unleash a barrage of anger, fear and confusion. He wouldn’t stop hitting them, kept calling them insulting names in Lingala, his native language and tried to run away from them at the airport multiple times. “At first, you have the weight of responsibility and you fall in love with that. Then you fall in love with them. It took so much patience, and so much of ourselves at that time to love him,” says Meg. “It’s the same with a newborn. You’re not sleeping, you’re up all the time with them, but you love the responsibility and that they’re yours, that they constantly need you. We’ve talked about that with other parents.”

But today, years later, their family life now feels easy. Ev is five, now in kindergarten, and Shepard is seven, having just started second grade. “They’re the best kids. Shepard is the sweetest older brother ever. It’s been fun to see that transition in both of them,” says Meg.

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At first, the children stayed at home instead of going to daycare, in order to give the adoptive parents the chance to bond with their children. Meg and Chad would be working around the clock with kids and employees all together. Today, as Chad works on furniture prototypes, Shepard also uses a small drill to connect pieces of wood and build miniature chairs, while Ev paints and listens to music as Meg works with employees and comes up with designs. “They’re like our little mirror buddies,” she says. “They’ve been crazy fun to have around.”

As a biracial family, they get looks everywhere they go. “We’ve had lots of great conversations about it, with white people and Black people saying, ‘It’s awesome,’” Meg recounts. “As a white person, I felt like I couldn’t come to the table when discussing race. But now I feel like we can, as a biracial family with Black children.” Another time, Meg remembers a random passerby informing her that she didn’t understand Black culture, and couldn’t raise Black children as a white person. “He’s right in that I don’t know anything about Black culture. Man, I really don’t. But I can do everything I possibly can to expose our children to Black culture,” she says. Though it isn’t safe for them to visit Kinshasa now, the Gleasons hope they’ll be able to take the children to their home country when they’re around high-school age.

Even in Congo, skeptical perceptions fell upon them. “The approach is very much, ‘Why are these rich white people adopting Black children?’” Meg remembers. “They’re wondering, ‘Why do they do that?’ But now, more than ever, I think it’s important that these issues of race, that these doors are opened, and that people have a different perception of what family is and what it can mean.’”

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They’ve grown to expect the reaction of either judgment or surprise, but not always in the most expected of ways. In a recent trip to New York City with the kids, Chad remembers walking across the street towards Central Park, holding hands with Ev and Shepard. An African-American man holding a tour guide sign looked him in the eye, nodded and pointed to his own hand, indicating its color. “At first I thought he was going to give me a compliment on my watch or something like that. But when I got closer, he said, ‘Make the people love what they hate to see.’ He showed me that he understood. I was so grateful.” It’s not always the type of reaction they receive, but that day the Gleasons enjoyed a beautiful day in Central Park and the American Museum of Natural History. “I just love my kids, and I want to be the best dad I can be to them. It’s as simple as that,” says Chad.

The devotion of their family has become the thing that is the most central in their lives on the “design island” in Iowa. “You’re not really influenced by anything aside from trees and birds here,” says Meg. The bubble makes it all the easier to be in the world unscathed, though they do get cabin fever sometimes, which is when travel and trade shows come in handy. But, they don’t foresee themselves leaving the middle of America. “There’s a magnetism here. You can’t mistake that,” says Meg.

This story originally appeared in ALIVE Issue 5, 2017. Purchase Issue 5 and become an ALIVE subscriber.

Photography by Attilio D’Agostino

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