Although she traces her roots to the earthy tones of Palisade, Colorado, design maven Tara Gray leads what can best be described as a colorful life. She has drawn inspiration from stints in vibrant Hawaii and, now, South Florida, but her passion for styling is a lifelong affair. Way back in middle school, she wrote her “Career Day” report on interior design. By high school, she had attended summer camp at the Art Institute of Colorado. Thinking back, Gray says it was the trips she took with her parents every summer that instilled in her a love of design. “My dad would always drive around older historic neighborhoods and look at the beautiful homes in those areas,” she recalls.
Upon graduating from high school, Gray left her hometown behind and enrolled in the interior design program at the Art Institute of Colorado, intending to focus on historical preservation. But when her studies introduced her to hospitality design, she shifted her focus. Armed with a bachelor’s degree in interior design, Gray embarked on a career in commercial and hospitality design in 2000. After working for a couple of studios in Denver and Colorado Springs, she changed gears again and took a job as department chair of the interior design program at a local college, launching her own business at the same time with projects including an award-winning design for a recording studio in Old Colorado City.
It was on the job that she met her husband, Luc, a custom luxury home builder, in 2002. Five years later, they married in Maui, sight unseen, simply because Hawaii seemed to them the ultimate in destination-wedding locations. Their beach ceremony was complete with Hawaiian music, a local minister, native flowers, hula dancers, a luau, and a honeymoon on nearby Molokai. Predictably, they fell in love with the islands. “We were one of those stereotypical couples who say, ‘Oh my gosh, wouldn’t it be so great to give everything up and move here?’” Gray explains. But with a life back in Colorado, they put the idea to rest as a “someday” dream, returned home, and welcomed a baby girl, Channing, in 2011.
Within a few years, however, Luc’s business partner announced he was moving—and Gray also felt ready for a change. “[Luc and I] both said, ‘We’ve lived in Colorado our whole lives; we can either stay here and look for something [different to do] or maybe it’s time we start looking elsewhere,” says Gray. “Maybe this is the time we take a chance.
What if this is the Hawaii opportunity? What if we just did it?’”
Suddenly, all the pieces began falling into place. Through Instagram, Gray serendipitously found Luc a job in Hawaii. They sold all of their belongings and, 3-year-old Channing
in tow, headed to the Pacific in 2014. Once there, Gray landed a job as design director for Henderson Design Group, a luxury residential firm with locations on the Big Island and in San Francisco.
Working on the island had a great effect on Gray’s eye. “Moving to Hawaii was a huge influence on me for residential design,” she says. “There’s a really beautiful vintage aspect to designing in Hawaii because it has such a deep and rich history, and while I’ve always loved designing with lots of color, Hawaii really introduced me to a more tropical, juicy, vibrant color palette—really fresh colors.”
Outside of designing luxury residences on Hawaii’s ritzy Golden Coast—akin to our Jupiter Island or Palm Beach—Gray began flexing her entrepreneurial muscles and renewed her focus on a blog and Instagram page she had launched in 2011, The Modern Maven. The blog is dedicated to her unique brand of colorful design, and while caring for a newborn, it had served as a creative outlet for sharing craft projects, basic home-decorating tips, and cooking and baking exploits. Before long, Gray’s desire for a deeper creative outlet synced with her fondness for vintage VW buses and would later morph into another business venture. She purchased a 1978 bus on Craigslist and had it shipped from Seattle across the Pacific. She designed a digital floral vinyl wrap for the bus, administering light renovations to transform the vehicle into a tropical oasis on wheels, dubbing her creation “Miss Maven.”
The Grays embraced the aloha spirit for three years on Hawaii and another three on Maui until a new opportunity, this time in the form of a large Palm Beach project, brought island life to a close in the Pacific but landed them in another American paradise on the East Coast—Tequesta. This past January, they relocated, taking Miss Maven along with them. The bus traversed from Maui to Oahu to Los Angeles, then on to an open-air transport semi that toted it across the country.
“I try to drive her as much as I can around our little town here, and I get stopped constantly,” says Gray. She and her family often pop by local haunts like Perk Coffee House and pottery classes at Clay Haus. “People wave, and they want to chat. In Hawaii, they call it ‘talk story’— everybody wants to ‘talk story.’ Everybody wants to know what [Miss Maven] is and what she’s about and why I have her, which has been lovely in a brand-new place.”
What Miss Maven is, is a mobile business. Gray styles and stages the bus, renting it out for photo shoots and events like corporate fundraisers, picnics, baby showers, engagements, birthday parties, weddings, and beyond. She primarily promotes it through Instagram, which holds a special place in her heart for deeper reasons. Instagram launched right around the time Gray gave birth to her daughter, and as she battled postpartum depression, the inspiration she found through the online community helped her pull through to sunnier days. “From the very beginning, when I started using [Instagram], it was just about the connection,” she says.
Connection—and Instagram—has helped Gray with other personal things as well, like decorating her own home. While still living in Hawaii, she had spotted a wall of grass-skirted statuettes at the reception desk of The Laylow hotel in Oahu and immediately knew she wanted a similar display in her own home. But finding exactly what you want on the island isn’t always easy. “I used to love to thrift in Colorado, but there are not a lot of thrift stores in Hawaii,” she says. “It’s an island, so stuff only comes so far.”
She turned to her favorite app for help: “I put an Instagram post up saying, ‘I want to re-create this. Any of you who are out thrifting and find a hula girl, I will pay you for it and pay for shipping if you’ll send it to me.’”
Vintage hula girls poured in from around the world—Germany, Spain, Canada, even South Korea—and not a single follower would accept payment from Gray. “It makes me smile for more than just the fact that they’re cute hula girls,” she muses about the 92 statuettes now adorning her Tequesta home. “It’s a very special collection.”
Beyond the funky wall of hula dancers, Gray wasted no time in converting her family’s new home into a color-splashed “tropical vintage beach house,” as she describes it—a haven of happy that even quarantine can’t overshadow.