Master’s Degree in hand, with five years at Boston design firms on her resume, Gretchen Boulos thought the time was right to bring her interior design expertise back to her home state. So in 2013, she started sending out applications and traveling home from Boston for interviews. She spent months interviewing, and after every interview heard the same thing – there’s just not enough work to bring on a new employee.
Many people would be discouraged by months of rejection and bad news about their industry. But not Boulos.
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She moved back to Maine in June of 2014, and accepted freelance work with Lisa Whited, a well-established interior designer in Portland who has long been a mentor to Boulos. What she discovered as she settled in, however, is that the same types of modern and innovative spaces that she helped to design in Boston were not as prevalent in Maine. Boulos understood that it wasn’t just about creating work environments that looked cool. If designed right, these spaces have the power to spark an invaluable amount of creativity within an organization.
After taking a few clients, she knew by August of 2014 that operating her own design business, in the state that she calls home, was not only feasible, it was her best path to success and happiness.
”At the end of the day, the move was more important to me than the position,” Boulos says. “If you can make it work in Maine, it’s the best place to live.”
Boulos grew up in Cape Elizabeth and Falmouth, but had left Maine to earn her undergraduate degree at Wheaton College in Massachusetts. After studying printmaking and photography, though, she did a bit of soul-searching and realized that while she loved being creative, the struggling artist lifestyle didn’t appeal to her. She needed a bit of the business lifestyle and structure in her career, and as she considered what to do, Boulos realized that interior design could offer her the best of both worlds.
She was accepted into the Suffolk University interior design graduate program, and attended school full-time, year-round for three years before graduating. Her hard work paid off and she landed a job with a design firm based in Boston’s Copley Square. While there, she learned the ins and outs of the interior design industry — knowledge that set her well on her way to becoming a successful businesswoman in her own right.
While at the Boston-based firm, Boulos quickly realized that corporate office design was her passion. She enjoyed the opportunity to help people create an environment that reflects a company’s goals and values, giving employees a chance to work somewhere they find inspiring.
The first major client Boulos worked with, in collaboration with Whited, was designing an expansion of MEMIC’s office space on Commercial Street. Working with Senior VP and CAO Catherine Lamson, Boulos realized just how appreciative Lamson was of her work and her attention to the needs, goals and mission of MEMIC. There was a gap in the design industry, and Boulos was ready to fill it for Portland. Working with designer Lisa Whited on this project was the jumpstart Boulos needed to hit the ground running.
Her success was so immediate that she never had to search for full-time employment with another firm.
“No one else was really offering personalized, dedicated service in Portland, no one was educating the public about the importance of preliminary work for the design of office space. In big cities people knew, but not up here in Portland,” she says.
Companies began to catch on, and the next major project she worked on was for an iconic local brand – Tom’s of Maine. The company, now owned by Colgate, and was looking to renovate their office space in historic Kennebunk’s Lafayette Mill. When Boulos took on the project, the company was operating with a staff of 35 in an inefficient, uninspiring space. She worked with them to design a new workspace that could hold 50 employees in a more productive, more pleasant environment. Such a renovation, says Boulos, can literally change the way people feel when they come to work in the morning.
More recently, she worked on a major renovation project in Portland for Gorham Savings Bank, planning and implementing the interior renovations for their new office space at the historic Grand Trunk office building at the corner of Commercial and India Streets. Once an iconic landmark of Portland’s railway system, this three-story brick building, built in 1903, is the only building which survives from the once-active railroad complex. Aside from the usual challenges of design, the project presented a new challenge – historic preservation. Boulos and architect David Lloyd, along with a great team of experts, had to work within the guidelines of the Historic Preservation Society. As a result, the new office space still contains wainscoting and trim from the Grand Trunk days, but now juxtaposed with modern design elements. The first floor of the building is open to the public and features old photos of the area that Boulos had printed on metal sheets, providing a glimpse into the building’s past.
“It’s a little gem in the city of Portland that everyone should go see,” says Boulos of this landmark she played a part in preserving.
With major clients already in her portfolio, where does Boulos see her company headed? For one, she’s currently a solo operator and doesn’t see that changing. She does, however, contract out portions of projects to freelancers and to other professionals when she needs to, and takes on interns who are in the shoes she used to be in to help immerse them in the design world.
Boulos, though, still finds time to be active in a volunteer capacity. She serves on the Portland Museum of Art’s building and grounds committee, sharing her time and talents to help the museum with its design and structural needs. She’s served on the board of the non-profit Architalx program, which brings four speakers from around the world to the Portland Museum of Art each April to discuss cutting edge trends in architecture, interior design, and landscape architecture. Boulos is also active in the Maine Interior Design Association (MIDA), a nonprofit dedicated to promoting the industry in the state. That group is especially helpful with lobbying efforts, such as those to keep interior design as a licensed profession in Maine, ensuring that people like herself can work on their own, rather than just operate under an architect’s supervision.
”What I like best about being in Maine is that there’s a lot of companies based here, and there’s more that would be here if they could, and if I can make a difference in helping them succeed or to grow and to provide jobs for other Mainers, that’s really where my passion lies,” Boulos says to explain her heavy investment in industry organizations. “The design and development communities here in Portland are like none other and I am honored to be a part of them.”
Boulos followed her passion, worked hard, and took a chance in moving back to Maine. Her talent was recognized quickly, and now she has a thriving business that is helping Maine companies provide their employees a comfortable, efficient work environment, and in doing so, grow their own business. Her business is helping other businesses.