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American Made Series: Belle Helmets

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A helmet painted with "Blue Sky," the design that gave birth to Belle Helmets.

Artist Danielle Baskin, a Chicago native and the proprietor of Belle Helmets, didn’t even wear bike helmets prior to moving to New York City. The NYU grad worked on her first helmet in 2007, and it was the first one she’d ever bought. “I decided to paint a blue sky on it to sort of…camouflage it,” she says. “The goal was to make it invisible by painting it to blend into my surroundings.” As you can see, these functional works of art turned out to be anything but invisible.

While a custom, completely hand-painted helmet from Belle can retail for $300, there’s some good news for cash-strapped cyclists: this November, Baskin will launch a moderately priced line with several new designs. The new helmets will be a printed-painted hybrid that will retail for $75 each.

After painting the helmets a mixed base color, Baskin designs the vinyl graphics on her computer. She then sends the file to her vinyl plotter, and carefully peels off the graphics. Baskin often uses white vinyl that she paints, though she sometimes prints artwork directly onto the vinyl.

When did you realize that hand-painting helmets could be a viable business?

While waiting at intersections people would ask me where my helmet came from, or would just say “nice helmet.” I had a lot of design ideas that I thought someone somewhere would want to wear. After painting my first helmet, I bought a few more blank ones. Then, sticking to my “invisible helmet” idea, I painted a night sky as well as a sunset sky to wear during different times of the day. Eventually, I painted these and other designs for friends. I thought that there must be cyclists out there who — like me — didn’t really like the bulky, drab look of helmets and would be inspired to wear one if it looked differently. I started selling them online in 2009 and several retailers started carrying the helmets in 2010.

The vinyl is applied to the helmet with adhesive and light heat.

Your visuals are very striking. How do you decide what to put on a helmet?

I thought of what would work well on a curved, wrap-around surface. Fruits, textiles, and planets work well. Space-things and brain-things are topics I’m interested in, so I paint a lot of that too. I have a tarot card series that I created after first seeing the Rider-Waite deck. I thought it would be interesting if cyclists and passersby would see the cards and get an instant tarot reading. I also like the idea that there’s a deck of tarot cards shuffling around on bikes that you can see from an aerial view of the Earth. There’s actually a half-deck out there!

Once the vinyl is applied, Baskin adds hand-drawn work. For this helmet, she drew an airplane with red archival ink and extended the grid to the edge, curving it around the back. After the ink sets, she seals the entire helmet with a few layers of varnish and lets it dry for 24 hours.

Are you really a one-woman operation?

Yep, and I paint each helmet. A year ago, I was painting one to two helmets a week. This month it’s been about 15-20 a week, and this number seems to climb each month. Likewise, the number of cyclists have grown since I started my business. While recently I’ve been backlogged with orders, I still try to find time to invent and experiment with new designs.

The final product!

Tell me more about the new hybrid helmets.

I reached a point where my designs were getting more intricate. I have an influx of ideas, but I didn’t want price to be the determining factor of whether or not someone would wear that design.  While I am continuing my hand-painted series, I’ll have an additional collection where all the designs will be $75. These helmets will be somewhat more minimal and abstract, but still totally trendy and fashionable. There’s a lot of design possibilities with this new technique and each design goes through a different process and combination of what aspects are painted, printed, and plotted. While the helmets are all still one-of-a-kind in terms of variation on design layout and color hue, I can now create helmets in small batches with faster production.

All of the helmets are from Seven Star Sports and meet CPSC and ASTM safety standards. The painted/printed versions still have a hand-painted base. Each helmet’s background is color-mixed to order. After it’s painted I add the vinyl, which I design and print. After the vinyl is applied to the surface — depending on the design — the helmet gets more of a hand-painted treatment, and/or drawings in ink are added. Then they’re varnished, UV-protected, and shipped. All of the materials I use are non-toxic and non-corrosive.

My personal favorite from Baskin's hand-painted line is her phrenology design.

New York only recently became a biking city with the advent of public bike-sharing. Where are most of your clients from?

Citibike’s launch definitely boosted sales in New York. I’ve also been getting more orders in Chicago because of their bike-sharing program. While most orders are from New York and California, Melbourne and Vancouver are also big customer bases. I’m delighted to make bike safety more beautiful all over the world!

Fruit, planets, and textures like woodgrain all work well for spherical designs. "Things I don't suggest getting painted on helmets?" Baskin says. "Portraits."

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