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From Sculptor To Product Designer: The Case For Unusual Career Paths

Bellabeat cofounder Urska Srsen on her journey from artist to entrepreneur.

From Sculptor To Product Designer: The Case For Unusual Career Paths
[Photo: Flickr user Abhisek Sarda]

Urska Srsen, the 25-year-old cofounder of Bellabeat, wanted to be a sculptor from the time she was nine. Not an artist, not a painter—specifically, a sculptor. At that age, she attended an art class in her native Slovenia, taught by a grande dame of the Ljubljana art world. “She was so impressive,” recalls Srsen. “She just inspired me to be like her.”

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Urska SrsenPhoto: Courtesy of Urska Srsen

She told a friend of her mother’s, a fairly successful artist, her youthful plans, and he replied that it was a “horrible idea,” and that she’d “always be hungry.” “I was like, ‘OK, whatever . . . ’” recalls Srsen. Her commitment to her goal deepened. She set her sights on Ljubljana’s art academy, and began to prepare for the acceptance examinations, studying not just sculpting but drawing and other skill sets.

She studied clay figurative sculpture, but increasingly her interest was in abstraction and unusual materials. Attracted by modernist sculpture, she began to make works from materials scavenged from around her family’s apartment. “I was fascinated by the material itself, how you can manipulate the matter with your own strength,” she says. She became engrossed by that relationship between materials and the human body: the push and pull; the give and take.

At 19, Srsen finished high school and applied both to medical school (her mother is a perinatal doctor) and the art academy. She was admitted to both, but in a last-minute panic over life security, chose medical school. Almost immediately, she regretted it. For technical and bureaucratic reasons, she actually had to transfer from the medical school to the art academy. She trudged to the medical school to initiate the transfer. The medical school staff thought she was crazy. She trudged over to the art school to complete the transfer. The art school staff also thought she was crazy.

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Photo: Courtesy of Urska Srsen

She threw herself into her art studies at the art academy. It was a rigorous, structured curriculum: classes all day, practice all night, with cross-training in various mediums. “It was quite intense. They train you really hard,” she says.

Soon, she applied to study abroad at the Academy of Fine Arts in Helsinki, Finland, starting there in 2010. There, she found a more relaxed approach. And she began to find the material that she loved to work with most: wood.

“I became fascinated with the material.” She liked to play with an audience’s conception of what wood is, and what it could be. She’d take a giant log, for instance, manipulate it and light it a certain way. A viewer approaching the work would initially be struck with a sense of heaviness . . . only to realize that it had been completely hollowed out, rendered flimsy even, by Srsen’s handiwork with a chainsaw.

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Soon it came time for Srsen to do her large thesis project. A 500-year-old linden tree had become damaged during street work, and had to be cut down. Srsen and a fellow student got word, and decided to make their thesis project out of the tree, which weighed 10 tons. It was going to be an ambitious work, an “acoustic sculpture” manipulated in such a way that it would double as a musical instrument when exposed to gusts of wind.

And that’s when Srsen’s side project took over.

Photo: Courtesy of Urska Srsen

Too make ends meet, Srsen had been working for a company that made products for prenatal health care. The initial idea was to make a medical product that would help patients send data to their doctors, but soon, Srsen and her cofounder realized there could be a broad consumer demand for a product that would allow you to listen to your unborn child’s heartbeat, record it, and send it to family and friends. Bellabeat was born—and since then, Srsen’s sculpture career has been on hold. (A 10-ton tree rots in Finland; “I feel guilty about it,” she admits.)

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What happens, though, when someone who has trained to be a fine artist since she was nine suddenly pivots, entering product design? Fascinating, off-the-wall ideas that might never enter the minds of people trained in industrial design. Bellabeat’s newest product is called the Leaf, and it’s a piece of “smart jewelry” (something like a FitBit), only it’s made of Srsen’s favorite material: wood.

When brainstorming around the product began, everyone had assumed it would be made of plastic. “But it really bothered me to wear it on my hand,” Srsen recalls. More to the point: “I wanted it to be beautiful.”

Photo: Courtesy of Urska Srsen

She admits that working with a wood casing for a sophisticated piece of electronics was a “huge challenge.” But Bellabeat (which is Y Combinator-backed) pulled it off. The Leaf, which can be worn as a necklace, bracelet, or brooch, “monitors women’s activity, sleep, and nutrition,” per the company’s claims. It’s available for $119.

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“I guess it gives me a different perspective on things,” says Srsen of her training. “I do know how to work with materials, and I know a lot about manufacturing and the processes used in manufacturing, since they tend to be very similar to the ones used in sculpture.” It’s the reason why she’s not just in charge of design but also production and manufacturing at the company, she explains.

So should design-oriented startups hire more MFAs? She thinks it can be a good move. You may have industrial designers on your team, she says, “but even they may not have actually executed anything in physical form,” rather than on CAD software. “Artists come in handy because they’re more practical, they’re resourceful, and they see things from a physical perspective.”

Might Srsen finally wrap up that MFA? She says she does plan to finish it, but doesn’t feel an urgent need to have her work shown in galleries. “I’m really happy with Bellabeat. I don’t really make a lot of plans. I’m just thinking: Am I happy or not? As long as I’m happy, I don’t need to be thinking about future plans.”

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About the author

David Zax is a contributing writer for Fast Company. His writing has appeared in many publications, including Smithsonian, Slate, Wired, and The Wall Street Journal

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