Cover Story » Vol.18

Designing Women

Central Massachusetts Interior Decorators.

by Ellen O’Connor

Pam Bleakney

Pam Bleakney

Pam Bleakney

Pam Bleakney was just a kid when she realized that architecture and interior design were for her.

“I had a 15-year plan of what I wanted to do,” said the owner of PNB Interior Design, Inc. in Northborough. She got her associate’s degree in interior design, following that up with a Bachelor of Fine Arts in the same major at the University of Massachusetts.

In the late 1970s, she started doing residential work in the Sudbury and Weston area and then got hired as an interior designer by the former Digital Equipment Corporation in Maynard. While working for Digital, she continued to do residential work on a part-time basis.

In fact, Bleakney’s resume runs the gamut of design work: residential, commercial and corporate. She has founded a few different interior design companies over the years and has owned and operated PNB Interior Design since 1980.

Dining Room / Living Room decorated by Pam Bleakney

“I have an unusual background,” she said. “I did a lot of church renovations, restaurants, commercial places and then kind of went back to running just one company.” She works on both the construction and the design end of things.

“We do both the building side and the finishing and interior side, which is great because then you can pull it all together,” said Bleakney. “And the client has more control from start to finish.”

In an interesting twist of fate, Bleakney renovated the former church where she now houses her office and showroom.

“I’ve always loved this building. My company was hired to do the conversion from residential to a multi-use property. When the space became available last summer, I jumped at the opportunity.”

The showroom allows customers and potential customers to stop by 10 Church Street to see first-hand what her company can do for their home or business. The showroom contains custom-made furniture, as well as a room with all of their catalogues and reference materials.

“I’m so excited about this,” she said of the space that opened in August of 2009. “It makes life so much easier.”

Even though her background is strong on the commercial side, Bleakney enjoys doing residential work. “I love it when somebody calls me to do an addition, a kitchen remodel or an in-law apartment.”

A lot of people approaching retirement age want to get their houses ready to sell, get their houses updated, or turn their place into the so-called “staycation” home.

Framingham Dining Room Decorated by Pam Bleakney

“A home can become your retreat,” said Bleakney. “It can be a very relaxing place to be.”

The West Coast idea of connecting the indoors with the outdoors ~ the patio, the garden, the backyard -~ is definitely becoming more prevalent here, she said.

PNB Interior Design, Inc. is located at 10 Church Street, Northborough. The website is Pam B’s phone is 508-393-3866. E-mail is

GillisSchwalm Interiors

Ann Marie Gillis and Janet Schwalm had reached the point where they both were ready to get back into the work world. They knew exactly what they wanted to do:  start an interior design business together.

“We decided it would be best to start a business that reflected our background and business sense,” explained Schwalm of the 2008 inception of GillisSchwalm Interiors. “We want to enhance peoples’ homes to allow them the opportunity to live a certain lifestyle and to really enjoy their homes.”

Janet Schwalm and Ann Marie Gillis

Janet Schwalm and Ann Marie Gillis

Both women have a background in art. Gillis has fine arts training from Emmanuel College, as well as a bachelor of arts in business management. She previously worked as a project manager for a Boston investment firm. Schwalm has a bachelor of fine arts, as well as a background in graphic arts. She previously worked as a print production manager in the Boston advertising and banking industries.  GillisSchwalm Interiors, which right now focuses solely on residential work, is located in Northborough.

“We’ve always wanted to work in art,” said Gillis. “We’ve always been involved in it.”

Still, the two women have different styles, which “complement each other,” said Schwalm.  “We blend our style, along with the client’s, to make it their home.”

Gillis agrees that both of them bring something slightly different to the table.

“Janet’s taste runs more toward traditional, while mine is more toward modern and contemporary,” said Gillis.  “We learn a lot from each other.”

Apartment Living Room by GillsSchwalm Interiors

And the end result is a better product for the client, they say.  “It is really nice to have the opportunity to work with two decorators,” said Schwalm.

One of their clients initially wanted to move because she did not feel that her house reflected her personality. In other words, she did not feel that her house was truly her home.

After a redecorating project that involved upgrades to several rooms, including the living room, kitchen and dining room, the woman completely changed her outlook ~ both on her house and herself. The house was definitely now hers and she herself experienced a sort of makeover.

“She became much more confident a person,” said Schwalm. “She even changed the way she dressed. It was quite a transformation.”

And she decided not to move, said Gillis. Helping people in such a situation “is a very satisfying feeling,” she noted.
Both designers want people to know that by changing just a few things in your house ~ rearranging the furniture or buying some new accessories, for instance ~ can really make a difference. Your home will improve, your lives will improve, and the changes won’t break the bank.

Ann Marie Gillis can be reached at 508-873-5301, Janet Schwalm at 508-380-7077. Their website is

Ann Coplen-Harold

Ann Coplen-Harold found her career when she worked one summer in a furniture store, following around an interior designer.

Ann Coplen-Harold

Ann Coplen-Harold

“I had always been interested in the arts,” said Coplen-Harold. “I loved textiles. I loved color and texture.”  When her kids were old enough for elementary school, she herself went back to school, getting a degree in interior design to go with the undergraduate degree in art and the MBA she already had.

Interior design in Houston, Texas is a whole different ballgame, she said of the city where she lived for 22 years. “There is so much more disposable income and housing is a lot less expensive.” The population is also very transient.  She still has clients in Texas she works with, as well as some in Ohio.

Coplen-Harold works out of her home in Worcester and also teaches at Boston Architectural College.
Two advances that have helped the interior design business is the evolution of the Internet and the creation of digital cameras.

“A lot of what I buy I can see on-line,” she said of websites that are open only to interior designers. “You can save a lot of time, which is really important today considering the economy. If I save my clients time, I can save them money.”
Coplen-Harold’s favorite thing to do is to go over architectural plans prior to a remodel or new construction.

“Designers can see things in different ways than architects. We see things in a more functional way.” She takes great joy in doing things like calculating the amount of lighting a space will need or making sure the doors all open in the right direction. She works primarily on residential properties.

Katie and Andy's kitchen after redo by Ann Coplen-Harold

She says she has always had a knack for being able to visualize space, which is an essential talent for a designer.
“I’ve always been a very tactile, color-oriented person. I think I was in the seventh grade when the school gave us an aptitude test. I was either going to be a sculptor or a lumberjack,” she laughed. “I decided the sculptor thing was a little more attainable.”

Her talents at visualization also came in handy when she and her husband were looking for a house in Worcester.  They bought a home on Otsego Road and renovated before they moved in. Her husband was not sure they had made the right choice. He changed his mind when he saw the transformation.

“He said, ‘Wow, you could see this?’ ”

Coplen-Harold also focuses a bit of her work on the “aging in place” concept.

“Even if you are 20 years old, you need to think that you are going to be [in this home] for the rest of your life. So let’s make everything accessible.”

Coplen-Harold’s website is

Ann “Cookie” Nelson

Ann “Cookie” Nelson has been in the interior design business for 45 years, getting her start in Chicago where she frequently helped her friends redecorate their homes.

“They would tell me, ‘You have such great taste. Will you come with me to pick out some wallpaper?’ ” Nelson recalled. “I was not designing professionally, but one woman had me going hither and yon and my husband finally said, ‘You should start your own business.’ ”

She took that bit of husbandly advice and opened her own interior design business, capitalizing on the training she received in the field when she was in college.

Ann "Cookie" Nelson

Ann "Cookie" Nelson

“Chicago was the biggest design center in the country at the time,” she said of the city where she got her professional start. From there, she and her husband moved to Detroit, a city “where everybody had a decorator.” Her business boomed and she kept it going when they returned to Worcester.

Nelson, who works out of her own home, wants to dispel the myth that hiring an interior decorator is only for the well-to-do.

“An interior designer is really another form of a store and we are no more expensive than a store and in many ways we are less expensive.”

Interior designers can work with their clients and can adjust their pricing. Further, designers buy wholesale ~ every fabric, every couch, and every chair.

“It’s a very good deal to go to an interior designer,” said Nelson. “You get expertise and you get quality things.”

While the Boston Design Center, which is where Nelson buys furniture, fabrics and other household goods, is not as cheap as going to Bernie and Phyl’s, Nelson says it will save you money in the long run.

Photo by Joan Paulson Gage

Library fireplace in Cookie Nelson's home. Photo by Joan Paulson Gage

You can buy a nice chair and recover it many years later. Or you can spend the same amount of money at Crate & Barrel and throw the chair away and buy a new one when it wears out in a few years. It’s your choice, says Nelson, whose position on quality furniture is quite clear.

“I am recovering things my parents owned.”

Nelson is focusing some of her work these days in a niche area of interior design: folks who want to stay in their homes as long as possible.

There are many small, sensible things that can be done around a home to make it easier for those who can’t get around as well as they used to ~ put in a new toilet that is slightly higher than the standard one, create walk-in showers that have room for walkers or a seat, install doorknobs that are easier to open.

“There are a lot of things people can do that makes a house more adaptable.”

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