A stay abroad makes you stronger, says product designer Lenka Svatošová Series: How do UMPRUM graduates fare abroad
Successful graduates of UMPRUM
They design furniture, paint, create fonts, and design clothing. Read interviews with UMPRUM graduates about their academic and professional experiences at home and abroad.
Lenka Svatošová graduated from the UMPRUM Product Design Studio in 2016 and it was not only thanks to her diploma thesis that she settled in Belgium in 2017. She is currently taking care of her one-and-a-half-year-old daughter while managing to work as a luggage designer at Samsonite and collaborating with the studio gentle&more, founded by her friend Pieter Martin.
At the beginning of our interview, she admitted that she is not so used to talking about herself, but about her work. She practically doesn't feel the differences between life and work in Belgium and the Czech Republic and thanks to the fact that it is a member country of the European Union, she started her job without any problems almost immediately.
Does she miss close contact with the Czech Republic? Why does she recommend an internship abroad? And why does she think a work experience internship is better than a study exchange?
What is your favourite memory from your studies?
There was a wonderful friendly environment in the studio, but also in the whole school. So many different disciplines that connected people's relationships... And then there was the travel. Thanks to the studio managers Michal Froňek and Honza Němeček we had the opportunity to see the world and even exhibit there. We exhibited in Milan, Berlin, Tokyo, and New York.
You went to Erasmus at the Ensaama School of Art and Design in Paris. Was it different from studying at UMPRUM?
I was in the product design studio and it was quite a change compared to UMPRUM. There were twenty of us in the studio (four at UMPRUM). The approach to the subject was essential for the teaching. Not like at UMPRUM, where the emphasis is on the result rather than the path to it. Before embarking on something like this in Paris, they did very detailed research, considering all kinds of aspects, ideas, and provided detailed surveys. It is only with hindsight that I realise how important and necessary this approach is for practice.
You have been living abroad for a long time. What was your first major experience of living abroad?
My stay in Paris was also a formative experience, it was a great challenge. Everything was much more individual and that made integration more difficult. I was the only foreign student in the studio, and all the teaching was in French. The school didn't provide social events for Erasmus students like at UMPRUM and other schools, so I made friends on my own. But that doesn't mean that I don't have fond memories of that time. I had the opportunity to walk and cycle across Paris. I fully enjoyed the great student privilege of visiting galleries and monuments for free.
I assume this experience was a positive one, as it was not your last trip.
After graduation, I went on a work internship in Portugal. That was my heart's desire. Here it was a three-month internship in Vista Alegre, at a local glass and porcelain factory. The residency brought together a number of us designers, designing glass, porcelain, and prints. I was doing molded glass design.
Let's go back to your studies at UMPRUM. Your thesis, a cabin suitcase that addresses the discomfort of travelling on low-cost airlines, eventually landed you a job at Samsonite in Belgium.
Yes, it was a cabin case with an integrated leather bag that can be quickly unzipped. It can be used not only to carry one's essentials when the suitcase is stowed in the overhead compartment but also as a piece of variable luggage – handbag or backpack. I still wanted to improve my thesis, so I had the idea to reach out to the art director of Samsonite via LinkedIn. His response was almost immediate and he invited me to a six-month internship.
Was your thesis successful in getting sold?
I worked on the project for a while. Since Samsonite doesn't sell solitaires but complete luggage collections, the suitcase was to be part of a larger collection. However, it was never launched on market. But I was not sorry, because in the meantime I got the opportunity to be involved in other interesting projects.
The fact that you are still working at Samsonite today after your internship proves that it was a successful collaboration. Could you describe what it is like to work for such a prestigious and large company?
During my studies the ultimate goal for me, and I think for most of my classmates, was to have one‘s own design studio. I never thought I would work for a corporate firm and find it so fulfilling. I enjoy working in a team of differently specialized people, the dialogue between them, and the motivation to improve products. I appreciate the opportunity to deepen my skills in my field and the chance to focus fully on my work as a designer. If I were working in my own studio, I definitely wouldn't have that kind of space.
What exactly do you do at work?
I am a designer of textile luggage – suitcases, bags, and backpacks. In addition to the designer, a marketing and project manager, a technical engineer, and workshop technicians are involved in the development of the collection. It's exciting to be part of the whole process from the first sketch, through the preparation of the cuts and the first prototypes from our workshop, to the final model.
It's not just about designing a pretty shape. The process has to take into account the production possibilities, and the price, to realize the design and sell it. World events change established travel patterns, and finding more sustainable solutions is a must. All of this translates into upcoming collections.
In 2018, together with your friend Pieter Martin, you founded the design studio gentle&more (www.gentleandmore.com). What is your focus there?
The studio is my joy and distraction. Pieter is mainly in charge of it. About half of the projects here are consumer and professional goods, the other half is focused on luxury goods and custom projects. We look for collaborations with brands with a unique character in the new luxury category, characterised by authenticity, sustainability, and well-crafted products.
One of gentle&more's clients is the Czech Kovap.
Yes, I am particularly happy about this collaboration. We designed toys for them for smaller children to make them safer and more durable. The first toy Kovap introduced is a little tractor. From our research, we learned, among other things, that girls, more than boys, tend to create stories when they play. That's why we also designed figures to go with it, to expand the possibilities of play. More toys are in development.
With such a busy workload, how do you manage to look after your young daughter?
In Belgium, it's completely different from what we are used to in the Czech Republic. Maternity leave is only three months and parental leave is another three. A parent can spread it out as much as he or she needs. I started working part-time when the baby was six months old. Now I work four days a week. Going back to work after such a short time has been hard for me, but I've learned to function. Now I feel like I have more energy for my daughter because of my job and we enjoy being together more. What's strange though, I haven't found any activities for mothers with children in Belgium like there are in the Czech Republic. That's one of the things I still miss.
What are your plans for the future?
To be more in touch with my creative friends and the Czech Republic. Not only in terms of family and friends but also professionally.
Finally, I'll ask you for advice for current students. What would you recommend to them?
Definitely travel abroad! Take advantage of internships, not only study opportunities, but especially work ones in studios, and companies. Definitely go abroad yourself, and while it's not always easy, it's arguably the best way to improve.
Lenka Svatošová (*1989) studied in the Product Design Studio of the Academy of Arts, Architecture, and Design in Prague, and successfully graduated in 2016. During her studies, she profiled herself as an illustrator and product designer. She showed interest in luggage design as early as 2009 when she designed a suitcase with hand luggage that could also serve as a seat during long waits. For this design, she won the Talent Design 2009 and the National Student Design Award 2009. She returned to the topic of travel luggage in her master's thesis, which led her to first be accepted for an internship and then be hired by Samsonite, where she still works today. In addition, she collaborates with Gentle & More, the studio she co-founded with Pieter Martin.