If you’d asked Polish designer Maria Bulanda what she’d be working on when she grew up, she might have said furniture, visual identities or even buildings.
But sunglasses? Unlikely.
Not only that but by the time she launched her eyewear label Baleen, the 35-year-old mother of two already had her plate full, working as a graphic designer as well as a costume designer in Poland’s thriving film industry.
While the idea of launching a project of her own had long germinated in her mind, she hesitated over what shape it would take. By then, furniture was no longer a field she was keen to pursue. Neither were clothes, an obvious choice after working extensively on film wardrobes.
“I [handled] so many clothes every day of my life and we have so many already in the world that I didn’t want to add my pieces of fabric to the industry,” recalled Bulanda.
A trip to Rome after the birth of her first child in 2016 provided her with just the thing: eyewear.
While exploring the city, she happened upon a small antiques store, where she spotted “these beautiful, beautiful vintage glasses.” She was struck by the mere existence of this “item made long ago that was still here, in good condition,” contrasting with “the garbage we put into the world, into nature, [which] really bothered me, especially as I’d become a mother,” she said.
Once she had her sights set on sunglasses, she chose the name Baleen as a manifesto of sorts.
“I wanted to put the attention on responsible consumption and the sustainability of the production process” by referring to whalebones, a natural material used in eyewear and valued for its durability and flexibility in the 19th century, she explained, quick to add that she was glad technological advances and the protection of whales made using her brand’s namesake unnecessary.
Her initial intention was to strike a balance between easy-to-love classics and bold designs, working with minimal material waste in mind for products and packaging. The “wow” factor in Baleen eyewear turned out to be her architectural culture — Bulanda is the daughter, niece and granddaughter of noted Polish architects.
“Sunglasses are the perfect combination of the two worlds, from my childhood [to] my life now,” she said, comparing the structure of a building with eyewear frames and pointing out the importance of this accessory in an outfit.
Baleen founder Maria Bulanda.
“And when you put the lenses in, you see the world completely differently,” she added.
But it would take her another four years — with the COVID-19 pandemic and the birth of her second child thrown in — before the first models of Baleen hit the shelves in August 2020. Good thing she “never wanted to make a collection which would be fashionable,” she said, hoping her designs hit the right mix of striking and timeless.
Acetate turned out to be the first challenge Bulanda faced. “I knew how to deal with fabrics as a costume designer but acetate is totally different,” she admitted, explaining that she’d been surprised by the four-to-six-month process and number of steps it involved, compared to the quick turnaround between the design of a costume and its execution.
Baleen’s first collection soon found traction through e-commerce. According to Bulanda, her main markets are currently Poland and the United States, where she also sells through Los Angeles-based multi-brand boutique Teller, in Culver City.
Though inspired by buildings, don’t expect to wear a replica of the Guggenheim Museum or San Francisco’s De Young museum on your face.
“It’s not like I have my list of favorite architects and their buildings to turn into glasses,” she said. “It can be a shape from it, or I will be trying to catch how light shows up on the façade.”
Take the Zaha Hadid-designed Messner Mountain Museum in Bolzano, Italy. Bulanda transcribed her impression that its monumental windows had been carved inwards into the rocky formations through a rectangular beveled frame.
The lenses too are part of her evocation of these landmarks and are chosen to match the lighting conditions. “The light in Brazil will be totally different than it is on top of a mountain in Bolzano, so wearing these glasses, you can feel a little bit [of] these places,” she continued.
The Baleen Quatre Carreres model is inspired by the district of the same name in the Spanish city of Valencia and the work of architect Santiago Calatrava.
The label now offers seven models, in four colorways, all produced in France and Italy. An eighth model is set to launch at the end of 2022 and will be Bulanda’s first titanium design. “I wanted to do metal frames because actually it is also how it all began with the sunglasses [I found] in Rome,” she said.
While keen to expand the brand’s retail footprint, Bulanda is adamant that partners share her vision of eyewear as wearable art objects, rather than accessories. “What I see is that people don’t appreciate the work that has been done to produce [each pair],” she said, recalling how she recently saw glasses smeared with fingerprints in the flagship of a famous brand. “I would like to show [them] like pieces of art, not because of me but in appreciation of the manufacturers and all the people who worked on them.”
For its first physical retail location, Baleen temporarily set up shop in an art gallery on Mokotowska street, a shopping thoroughfare in downtown Warsaw, an area dotted with small boutiques and charming spots. It has since moved to its permanent home farther down the same street.
In this slow and steady approach, Bulanda is supported by her brother Maciej Bulanda and life partner Tadeusz Śliwa, a film director. Both are lightly involved with the brand, keeping separate careers.
As for the architects in the family — grandfather Konrad Kucza-Kuczynski, uncle Jan Kucza-Kuczynski and father Andrzej Bulanda — they’re serving as a design sounding board.
“They are actually even fighting [over] whose buildings were supposed to be an inspiration for me as they both have different [tastes],” she said with a laugh, noting how these intense debates now felt thrilling, after a childhood spent dreading how conversations would invariably turn to architecture at every family meal.
But there is one point she and her grandfather won’t see eye to eye on: her favorite architect.
A self-proclaimed minimalist, Bulanda named Zaha Hadid as her top choice but admitted that “you definitely cannot put [the late architect] in that box,” which prompted the elder Kucza-Kuczynski to reel off other names, like Le Corbusier.
There is another reason why Hadid deserves all Bulanda’s admiration. “She was unbelievable, especially in this men’s world. She was fighting for her dreams and her ideas [which] are light years ahead,” she added, drawing a parallel with the struggle of female creatives across many fields.