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Updated: June 21, 2022

Kittery design firm is growing revenue 50% a year with love of graphic art, architecture

2 people smiling at bar Courtesy / Geneve Hoffman Wife-and-husband team Elisa Winter Holben and Brandon Holben, of Kittery architecture and design firm Winter Holben, are seen here at their award-winning project Great Rhythm Brewing Co. in Portsmouth, N.H.

Kittery architecture and design firm Winter Holben has more than doubled its staff over the past year thanks to consistent growth in clientele and billings, the owners say.

Elisa Winter Holben, a designer, started the company in 2011 and was joined by her husband, architect Brandon Holben, in 2015. 

Their work includes retail, restaurants and breweries, mixed-use and commercial, and art and performance spaces.

Over the past year, the staff grew to 14 and added two interns. The firm expanded employee benefits, launched a profit-sharing program, built out operations and technology infrastructure, and expanded its lines of service to include design strategy and branding, architecture and planning, interior environments, and experiential graphic design.

Increasing New England clientele includes projects in the pipeline for the Buoy Shack in Kittery, five craft breweries in New Hampshire and Massachusetts, a Maine lakefront resort and mixed-use developments. At the national scale, Winter Holben in 2018 became a creative partner to Bank of America’s financial center and market growth strategy team.

Winter Holben donates design services to nonprofit institutions and community organizations, most recently to the Seacoast Science Center in Rye, N.H., to develop the new Gulf of Maine exhibit and museum entrance area.  

Mainebiz asked Elisa Winter Holben how she and her husband emerged from startup to established company. Here’s an edited transcript.

Mainebiz: Tell us about your background.

Elisa Winter Holben: I grew up in Newburyport, Mass., and have family in Kittery. My first job out of college was doing graphic design at a printing company, in Buffalo, N.Y. My husband and I moved back to New England and lived in Portsmouth for a while. I ended up with a position at Gamble Design in Portsmouth, where I learned about environmental graphics and designed wayfinding systems and experiential graphic design in the built environment. I realized I loved the combination of graphics with architecture.

I ended up at a larger design and build firm, focused on the financial services industry, and brought my ideology on the importance of experiential graphic design in the retail banking world. I loved leading design, so I left that firm and started working as a consultant. I had relationships with people at Bank of America and they started giving me projects. 

I started my firm and a few years went by. My husband and I designed a project in Portsmouth called 3S Artspace [a nonprofit alternative multidisciplinary arts organization]. We realized how well we worked together. That spurred us to start Winter Holben. It was a little bit of a leap of faith. 

MB: When did your business land in Kittery? 

EWH: We were living in Kittery already for a quite a while. In 2016, a coworking space was opening in Kittery Foreside at the same time that we needed space. We got a small office and, over the past seven years, we’ve slowly taken over the whole coworking space. 

MB: What are some metrics of growth?

EWH: Since we started, our revenues increased almost 800%. Our revenues grow 50% per year on average. 

MB: Who is your client base? 

EWH: We have a diverse client base. We have five breweries in progress right now. We have hospitality function space, mixed-use development and a little bit of residential. On a national scale, we have Bank of America. Since I started with them as a consultant, that’s taken off, giving us more work year after year. We help them design their retail environments, creating guidelines, standards and design elements. As of this past year, we do custom plans for each newly renovated location. That’s quite a large program for us.

MB: What’s an example of the Bank of America work? 

EWH: Some sites in New York City are being renovated. They’re pretty high-profile spaces. We collaborate with their architects and decide where certain elements should go in the space, to bring the experience together for customers. Pieces of that are marketing placement — all the digital and static marketing elements on the walls and floor — to keep the whole experience feeling good.

A fun part of the program is called ArtLifting, which represents underrepresented artists. We figure out what pieces go where to fill out the space and make it feel good for everyone who visits the financial center. 

MB: What’s the approach for that design work? 

EWH: I’m always picturing myself in the environment. I am imagining how I would experience it and how I would look at it and feel about it. A lot is based on what feels good and what has the best impact — what would I want to see and what does my client want me to see? We think a lot about focal points — what walls you’re looking at the most, how you’re navigating the space and what you’re experiencing at each moment in time. 

MB: Are there objective underpinnings to the experience of design? 

EWH: Yes, there’s a lot of data and knowledge about how people experience space. For example, there are ideas around captive audiences. If you’re standing in line or waiting in a waiting area, how much attention span do you have to absorb information? What would capture your attention? How do you feel about a brand? We think about that a lot.

Branding is all about a feeling you have for a business or an organization — how do you get that feeling across? What the does the space feel like — does it feel comfortable, inviting, interesting? It’s the colors, the finishes, the way you flow through the space. It’s more than each piece and part; it’s the overall feeling. That’s a combination of the architecture itself and the design within the architecture. 

MB: So that combination is the basis of you and your husband working together? 

EWH: Yes. Brandon is an architect. I think about it through a different lens. 

MB: How much work do you have this year? 

EWH: Brandon is working on five breweries and another 15 or so architecture projects right now. That ebbs and flows. Bank of America is a huge amount of work this year, because they’re renovating so many spaces. We do thousands of projects for them each year. 

MB: So you’re traveling a lot? 

EWH: No. We do a lot remotely.

MB: What’s driving your company’s growth?

EWH: We’ve grown organically. We don’t do a lot of marketing. We never really have. This past couple of years, we’re hitting our stride, where we realized we needed to add more talent so we can handle the project load. 

MB: What are your client acquisition strategies?

EWH: We have a lot of great relationships with current clients who recommend us and give us repeat projects. 

MB: Further plans?

EWH: We’ll keep growing organically. We never wanted to be a really big firm. We always wanted to have the small-team feel. 

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