Roula Tsapalas has a job where the net result of her passion wields the potential of drawing thousands of sets of eyes daily to your masterpieces, where the dictates of her one-of-a-kind sensibilities fulfills the literal definition of taking center stage. And she insists she wouldn’t have it any other way.
Tsapalas, a senior designer and part-owner of Quatrefoil, a Laurel, Maryland, firm that conceives, designs, tests, fabricates and installs interactive and multimedia exhibits for museums, science centers and cultural heritage sites nationwide. The company, now in its 30th year, is supported by a staff of 16 or so full time employees. Their enviable lists of diverse clients include the Smithsonian, the International Spy Museum, and the U.S. Mint.
Every morning, Tsapalas makes the 30-minute drive from her home near Washington, DC, where, in quick order, she settles at her desk to begin the day. During those quieter interludes, despite the swirl of activity around her, she maps out an inward trajectory that mirrors her mood for that day, that snapshot, throwing open the floodgates and behind it, the rushing waters on which her creative impulses ride at that fleeting moment.
The river of discovery leads her to another port of call, one where she has docked many occasions: “sketching, reading up, and trying to digest. I’m on the phone a lot with the client. We’re very thorough and deliberate. We hold their hands. We guide them through it.”
Around the time the world was upended by the COVID-19 pandemic, she said, the firm was in the final stages of helping install an attraction for the National Aquarium’s Living Seashore exhibit. “It was a very high-tech component embedded in a 4X8 wall. On one side of it were all these electronics.” The exhibit offers a window into the restless Mid-Atlantic shoreline
Prior to joining Quatrefoil, Tsapalas used her architecture degree from the University of Maryland to focus more on the exterior aspects of the business. “I was doing exterior design. What I do now is much more like interior architecture. It brings the stories to life.”
When she’s not at her desk cataloging explosions of imaginativeness, a typical day may feature several meetings on the agenda – something she never tires of – where synchronicity happens. “We talk a lot. It’s a blend and a mix of collaborators. I love that.”
Around the time the COVID-19 hit, she said, she and some staff members were knee-deep in helping the Textile Museum with a second project. “We designed a learning center for them, a classroom size space that serves as a standalone.” As the virus crisis began to worsen and most of the staff began working from home, “they solicited us to work on their museum retail store. They wanted it to be more educational” for visitors who were buying things associated with their visit.
Looking back on her early years in Baltimore, Tasapa recalled her father, a native of the island of Chios in the northern Aegean, along with two uncles, owned The Poplar Inn, a restaurant snug in the working-class suburb of Dundalk. The town lay within the shadow of the behemoth Bethlehem Steel plant.
“My mother came (from Chios) in ’39 as the youngest of four girls. My grandfather couldn’t afford dowries.” As was so common in those days, her grandmother, she emphasized, “kind of ruled the place.” Between the ungodly hours the food service business demands, her mother carved out time as a watercolorist. “I was surrounded by that. She was always drawing and sketching with us. And she made beautiful cakes which she sold in the restaurant.”
Tsapalas says she treasures her return trips to Chios, renowned during the Ottoman occupation for the production of resin harvested from the mastic tree and used to freshen breath and whiten teeth. While her senses become awash in all manner of stimuli, she says they are keenly attuned to the visual artistry, which takes center stage. “The thing I like about Greece,” she remarks affectionately, “are the villages. Seeing the way the fabric of the streets feel. It’s heartwarming to me. Find the town square and the church and the outdoor café. And the great little homes with balconies and bougainvillea. It takes your breath away as much as the antiquities.”