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Studio Visit: Belle Helmets

In a bathroom-sized space in Manhattan, Danielle Baskin rethinks bike helmets as a billboard for personal expression

by Nara Shin in Design on 06 June 2014

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Danielle Baskin first popped up on our radar as the artist who was painting the easily recognizable (and for those from the Northwest, iconic) PDX airport carpet patterns onto bike helmets. Evidently, she paints a lot more than that (though these are going to become a hot commodity once the airport replaces the carpet this winter). Baskin designs and paints landscapes, video game throwbacks, educational charts and even internet memes through her one-woman company, Belle Helmets, proving the slightly dorky safety precaution is just as fun and customizable as a beloved set of wheels.

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Outside of her online shop, Belle Helmets are sold at select stores and even museums around the world—and every single one is still painted by her hand. Somewhat surprisingly, Baskin isn't operating out a sun-drenched studio in Brooklyn; instead, we found her sandwiched between tech start-ups and entrepreneurs in a space in Manhattan no bigger than a bathroom. Inside Flatiron's Coworkrs space, it's easy to see why Baskin enjoys being surrounded by hubbub of people chatting and working away. Additionally, her glass-wall setup serves as free and effortless advertisement: visitors can't help but stop and look at the artist painting and varnishing at her desk, with stacks of finished helmets behind her.

We squeezed into the space to speak with Baskin about psychological influences and the weirdest requests she's gotten.

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When did this all begin?

I've been doing this for seven years, sort of. I didn't have a business until four years ago. Seven years ago, I did one that looks like the sky. I just got a helmet for myself because I got a bike and never wore a helmet before, because I'm from Illinois so there weren't as many cars. I moved here and it was really scary—there weren't bike lanes back then either.

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You studied sculpture and psychology—the latter explains the Phrenology helmet.

I have a lot of neuroscience-themed helmets like the Homunculus. [laughs] I just did more and I did them for friends, so I didn't turn it into a business until three years after [painting my first helmet], when some people on the street asked me where it came from and where they could get one.

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Were you still in school at this point?

Yeah, in your senior year of college, everyone gets a studio to work on their art. I was doing my projects for school but also, I had a box of helmets in there. And I would have my customers in New York come meet me outside the art building. I didn't tell them I was a student; I would just be like, "Come to this intersection," and I would run out during class.

Sounds like a drug deal.

I know, right? And I would get cash. [Eventually] I was told to stop doing the helmets. They saw me working on helmets, and they told me I was spending too much time on this silly business instead of doing my fine art. But, whatever, you can't graduate and then sell your art. This was my plan, to sell helmets.

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What is your general process of painting a helmet like?

I'll prime 15 at once. I just pull one down, paint it right here and then I move it to that table and varnish like four at a time. I package them here and the post office guy comes and picks it up. I listen to podcasts and books while I paint, so it's still meditative to still do the same design over and over again. I listen to 99% Invisible, which is a design podcast, Radiolab and WireTap.

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How did you settle on the specific helmet manufacturer you're currently working with?

They're Seven Star Sports, which is a Canadian company and I get them in bulk, once a month. (I need to install another shelf so I can get more at once.) All of the American companies wouldn't let me paint on their helmets because they want to keep their branding and they like their own graphic design—I think it's offensive for them. [They think], "I want to take your helmet and cover it up and then put my logo on it and not give you guys credit." So no one wanted me to do that.

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If you ride a bike as transportation, you have to have [a helmet] on you all the time. It would be weird to be stuck with carrying a brand. I think it's silly that helmet companies put their branding on it so big—clothes don't have [much] branding, they have a tag inside.

But I found a company that loves safety. And they're like, "If you're putting more helmets out there and keeping people safe, I love what you're doing!" They're really sweet; it's owned by seven brothers who have a helmet company together. I've been meaning to go and meet them—and then just fill a car with helmets and come back down here so I don't have to pay for shipping and customs.

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Do you get special orders? What's the weirdest request you made?

One lady wanted her kids' portraits on it. Which I convinced her not to do; it'd be really intricate so I'd have to charge her a lot—realistic portraits are not quick. I convinced her just to do a landscape. Someone else sent me a screenshot of this John Wayne movie and he wanted it in black and white all around—I ended up doing that. I've done custom ones like Star Wars; like I did a Death Star. People get their logos put on helmets too.

Any other projects that you're hoping to do this summer?

LED helmets! And because I have different price tiers, I'm trying to make quicker, simple designs and I'm going to sell them outside, on a tricycle, for $85. I wish I could go lower in my prices, but it's a helmet.

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Visit the Belle Helmets website to peruse Baskin's current collection or to commission your own design (she'll even paint on a helmet you already own). For NYC-based Citi Bike users, Baskin offers a 10% discount. Keep your eyes peeled in the downtown Manhattan area for Baskin riding her old-school tricycle around, selling helmets from the cart.

Images of space, sky and phrenology helmets courtesy of Danielle Baskin, all other photos by Nara Shin

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