NORTH KINGSTOWN, R.I. — A decade ago, Janelle Blakely Photopoulos was at a bit of a crossroads. A former marketing communications employee for AT&T, she, her husband and their young family had just moved to Rhode Island from New Jersey and she was looking for a way to fulfill her creative drive.
“There’s this creative side of me that I’ve always wanted to utilize and realize and so when I moved here to Rhode Island, I did a lot of work in my own home and realized I had a passion for it,” Photopoulos said. “People saw the work that I did in my own home and had asked if I was a professional interior designer, at which point I was encouraged to pursue that.”
Describing herself as someone who feels she has to “earn (her) stripes” and go through the process of learning everything she could about the interior design industry, Photopoulos soon enrolled in the Rhode Island School of Design’s Continuing Education Program and launched her own business, Blakely Interior Design, in North Kingstown.
Now, Blakely Interior Design has grown from a one woman operation to a team of six and from a few projects in the coastal homes of South County to projects up and down the East Coast, earning the firm the honor of being named the 2020 Rhode Island Small Business Association’s Woman-Owned Business of the Year.
“It’s an honor to be recognized as a woman who has built a business from the ground up and I’m so thankful for the acknowledgment, but also for the team that has helped me to get to where I am,” Photopoulos said.
Blakely Interior Design is a residential interior design firm that specializes in mostly new home construction projects, but also does full-service interior design from a decorating prospective for already built homes.
“We really work in a fashion where we work with our clients from the very beginning of the design process, many times teaming up with the architect and the builder on those projects that do involve construction and help our clients realize their vision for their homes and how they want to live in their homes functionally. But also what that means is aesthetically, and our position is that everyone deserves to live in a place that really uplifts them, so we really design from a place of color,” Photopoulos said.
In particular, it’s color that drives Photopoulos and Blakely Interior Designs.
“We use color as the foundation of our designs and so we’re known for creating very vibrant and colorful interiors,” Photopoulos said. “I’m a believer that color really creates emotions in us – and it’s scientifically proven – but it creates emotions in us and so we try to find out which colors resonate with which clients and how do we bring that color into their homes so that it uplifts them and creates a space that feels uniquely them.”
Holding a marketing degree from Syracuse University, Photopoulos initially worked for AT&T before leaving to start her family. She did some décor work back in New Jersey, but really began her career in interior design in Rhode Island, attending night classes at RISD while starting her business and raising three young children.
“My business really grew alongside of my journey at RISD, so much that it really just exploded fairly early on and now I never dreamed back then that I would be where I am now in terms of growing a business and having a staff of six employees and really contributing to our local economy and creating beautiful spaces really throughout the East Coast,” Photopoulos said.
Blakely Interior Design recently completed projects as far away as New Jersey and Alexandria, Virginia, and Photopoulos said there’s been interest in her work from across the country.
“We love our Rhode Island coastal homes that we work on, but we’re also getting some visibility throughout the country,” Photopoulos said.
While she says that after finding her passion for interior design she was initially disappointed in having studied marketing, she says the combination of both of her degrees has helped make her a more well-rounded and successful entrepreneur.
“I remember thinking to myself, ‘Gosh, why didn’t I know back when I was 18 or 19 that this was really what I would’ve wanted to do? It would’ve made it a lot easier to spend hours and hours in the studio doing my design work at 18, 19 years old when I wouldn’t have to go and figure out picking my son up at preschool and all of these things related to family life,” Photopoulos said. “At the time I was kind of kicking myself like, ‘Gosh, why didn’t I know this early on,’ but as I started to build my business, all of the knowledge I had gained through my original degree in marketing and business really helped it to flourish.”
“I’m so thankful for that education because I think if I had just had a design degree, I might be really good at design but I might not know how to grow my business and help build jobs and to do bigger and better things with my business,” Photopoulos added.
In addition to her work with Blakely Interior Design, Photopoulos is also active in charity work with Savvy Givings By Design, a nonprofit started in San Diego, California, that rebuilds the interior spaces of children facing a medical crisis at no cost to their families to help strengthen and encourage their recovery.
Photopoulos first became involved with Savvy Givings By Design after hearing an episode of an interior design podcast that featured its founder, Susan Wintersteen.
“I had been wanting for a few years to do something to give back to the community and use my talents to do that, and so when I heard about Savvy Giving By Design, I was like, ‘This is what I want to do here’ and I reached out to her and we started to develop chapters throughout the country and (Rhode Island was) one of the chapters that we created,” Photopoulos said.
For Photopoulos, being able to help these children and their families brighten their spirits with her interior design skills is truly rewarding.
“When you work with families that are struggling with a medics crisis and many times don’t have either the financial wherewithal to do a project like this for their child or the mental or emotional wherewithal to do something like this because they’re in the thick of pediatric cancer treatments and things that really consume them, to be able to come into these families’ homes and these spaces and really transform them to create a space for these kids to heal, it’s so rewarding,” Photopoulos said. “It’s very rewarding when we have our reveal with the child and they see the space that is all theirs and they can now have a space that they can heal in and feel creative and play and be like a normal kid.”
As with all small businesses, Blakely Interior Design has had to navigate the waters of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“It’s been a tough year for everyone I know,” Photopoulos said.
Photopoulos says her firm was fortunate in that they had some reserves on hand to avoid major layoffs as well as pivot their approach to more online interactions to better keep with social distancing guidelines and to meet customers’ comfort levels.
“We pivoted a little and started doing virtual design consultations that allowed us to still interact with potential clients and provide design services virtually,” Photopoulos said.
As for the projects they were already working on when COVID-19 hit, Photopoulos said understanding and flexibility for both themselves and their customers was key.
“We just had to have a lot of flexibility and understanding and hope that our clients did too because the supply chains changed, the workrooms closed down and so I think that everyone in the entire world had to have just a different viewpoint and an extra level of patience through all of it, which fortunately most of our clients have been incredibly understanding,” Photopoulos said, adding that business for her has been returning to its normal fall rate after a quieter-than-usual summer.
Now with nearly a decade of experience under her belt, Photopoulos has her eyes set on expanding even further in the decade, with hopes of becoming a national lifestyle brand based around their tagline: “Live vibrantly.”
“We try to inspire our clients to live vibrantly through their home and their interior,” Photopoulos said. “I want to really inspire the world to live vibrantly in whatever way that means to them.”
Photopoulos said she’s already began work on developing color-driven products for the home space such as accessories and wallpapers, with fabric textiles on the horizon as well as she hopes to bring Blakely Interior Design into the national spotlight.