Have you ever stopped to appreciate the way a chain link fence is engineered? Or have you ever given a second thought to those little plastic tabs used to seal bags of bread? It’s okay, I haven’t either. But luckily for all of us, designer Yuliya Veligurskaya has done just that, creating a product line of unique bags, jewelry, and other goods that are “inspired by everyday objects and crumbs of shared memories” within her brand Studiocult.
Veligurskaya is half-Ukrainian, half-Russian, and emigrated from Russia with her family to the Tri-state area when she was four. After studying architecture at the New Jersey Institute of Technology, she landed a job at a large firm in New York City. Though a steady career path was neatly laid out in front of her, her soul felt crushed by the industry a year later. She called it quits in pursuit of creative fulfillment that only she could cultivate for herself.
By 2017, Studiocult was born.
I was eager to learn more about Veligurskaya’s singular perspective and journey after covering her brand’s recently released Still Frame Sunglasses. The charismatic creative was game to chat with candor and verve about her upbringing in an immigrant family, her extreme career pivot, and how she finds beauty in the mundane.
(This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.)
What compelled you to leave your job in architecture?
I had to make my own way in the world, because even though my parents did so much for me, they had that immigrant mentality. My father really wanted me to do some kind of traditional job, so I studied architecture. I just happened to choose the closest thing that was creative, but practical, and that’s how I ended up in architecture. But I decided it wasn’t really a good fit for me, for a laundry list of reasons. There’s a lot of discourse now about how abusive the industry is.
I was like, You know what? This is stupid. I’m not going to do this to myself. I want to be an artist. I worked in the field for a year, and I was like, I did everything that everyone told me. I did it your way, but now it’s time to do this my way.
I moved back home with my Mom and hung out in her basement for a few months while I untangled my life, because by the end of my job, I was very unhappy. I felt really stifled and trapped.
Have you always envisioned running your own business one day?
I was very enterprising from a young age, but I feel like in many ways, that was squashed a bit because my immigrant family wanted me to get a “practical” job. But I’ve always been very rebellious and very against authority. I can’t be employed! I don’t do that. I need to be in control because I have big visions. I almost do it out of necessity. I always say: don’t start a business. It’s miserable. It’s really, really hard— you have to pay for your health insurance! For me, it’s worth it, but it’s not for the faint of heart.
While working my job in architecture for a year, I was building my first business that failed. I was importing stuff from China and selling it on Amazon, but the business fell apart. I didn’t really even acknowledge it as a failure though. I was so blinded by my need to succeed, that I just kept going. I was like, Alright, well, what’s the next thing?
I did a bunch of research and I found this community of people that made enamel pins online. I spent about a month looking at what’s important to people that purchase these things. What were the designs like? How many colors were used? Which designs got more likes on Instagram; which ones got the fewest? After mulling this over, I came to this conclusion that the ultimate pin I could make would be the MS Paint pin.
It took me about another month to make it, and then I paid a bunch of post accounts a very nominal fee to post it, and I was like, let her rip! I had a crappy website; it was my only product, but I was like, let’s see what happens.
Basically what happened is it went viral overnight. It sold out, it was an internet sensation, and then my career just took off. It’s kind of like my claim to fame on the internet.
Were you surprised by the success of this MS Paint pin?
I was trying to create the best pin I possibly could— I didn’t intend on it being a viral success. That was a lot to ask for; I just wanted a successful product. Everything else that came from it was incredibly surprising. To this day, I don’t think I’ve been able to replicate the virality of that pin. I’ve had other stuff do really well; we have products that go viral all the time, but never at that scale.
I’m very skeptical anytime I hear anything about spirituality and all of that woo-woo stuff, but it did feel, in a way, kind of like a sign from God or something. Like, “Hey, keep doing this. You’re on the right track.”
Where does your mental fortitude and unflappable drive come from?
When I was growing up, due to my family dynamic, I didn’t have any backbone whatsoever. I had super low self-esteem, and I allowed other people to make decisions for me, thinking that the faculty at school are the people who know what’s best for me. It just came to a point—and I think this is when people really make big decisions in our lives—that it just hurt so much to continue doing what I was doing.
What I really learned over the years is to trust your feelings. If something feels wrong, stop it. Because that’s how people end up in terrible relationships for the rest of their lives, and terrible jobs, and missed opportunities. I got very fortunate in my ability to reflect on that and really construct those feelings. I think a lot of people really struggle to do that.
What would you say to those who think creative careers aren’t as “practical”?
I think it’s all a bunch of lies. We’ve been fed so many lies. It’s not true anymore— the world’s changed. Despite all the things that are wrong in this country, it’s never going to be a utopia, but there’s never been a better time to be alive. I firmly believe that.
It might not be easy, and I’m not saying like Kim Kardashian, “Shut the fuck up and work.” Working is not the problem— I think people are working really hard. But if you can get more into the mindset of “work smarter, not harder,” and start being kind of schemey, you can figure some things out.
The Studiocult point of view is so distinct and defined, and it seems like such a clear reflection of you as person. Is that true?
My work is more than a business— it is me. Everything that you’re seeing, I’ve poured tears, heart, love, soul, everything into it. The things that I make are reflections of how I see reality. I’m a very wholesome, cute person, but I’ve also been through a lot of pain in my life. My work is an effort for me to right the wrongs in the world, in a way. I get really frustrated by how much suffering and pain there is, and I want to see good in the world. And the only thing I can really do is make my little piece of reality reflect that. I can’t change everything.
What’s your creative process typically like for designing a product? Where do your ideas come from?
I’ve always found it really hard to explain this part of my work because it’s so personal, but I do firmly believe that there’s beauty to be found in nearly anything. It’s being able to go through life, see something, and just appreciate how something’s made. By doing that, you’re a little more conscious of life, instead of just passing by everything and not really considering the inventiveness of the human race. I’m just very fascinated by all of that. We’re around engineering marvels all day— it’s kind of nuts.
I have this special relationship with the physical world, especially with objects. A lot of my best work cooks up in my head from the consumption of all of these moments in my life. I think that the fence bracelet is one of the products that I’m most proud of, for that reason. You think a fence is a very boring object, but when you look closer, there are so many cool details about this thing. And I thought it would serve well as a wearable piece of art, celebrating all these little details.
There’s some part of the process that’s a little bit subconscious. I’m just having fun!
Studiocult has really taken off over the last few years, with some of today’s biggest celebrities wearing your products on red carpets at massive events— Lil Nas X wore your Asterisk Earring to the iHeartRadio Awards, Jill Scott wore the It’s a Trap! Ring to the Oscars, etc. How has this success landed with you?
It’s weird. You’d think that I’d be jumping for joy, but it hasn’t totally integrated into my reality yet. It doesn’t feel real. I don’t think that I’ve fully understood the thing that I’ve built yet. It’s strange to me that the things that I’ve made are living on people. I don’t think that I’ve accepted my success yet. It’s hard to believe because I’m breaking one expectation after another after another; I haven’t had time to catch up. While all of these amazing things are happening, I’m on the backend having to keep the whole thing running.
Designers and artists dream all of their lives of getting these opportunities, and then when they actually come, it’s like, Okay, now what? What does this mean? It’s also not as exciting as you think it would be. It’s not like I’m in this state of ecstasy and all of my problems are solved. If anything, I have more problems to solve!
It’s not like now you’re getting brunch with Lil Nas X.
No, not at all!
What kind of art and design excites you the most?
I really hate going to art exhibits and reading a long, bougie-sounding paragraph that translates to nothing. I’m very strongly against anything like that. I think that good art moves people. Art for the public should be very digestible and very clear. There’s this intellectual circle jerk that happens in the art and design world. You’re not accomplishing anything other than stroking some other person’s ego. It’s not helpful to the world. I want to try to make my work as approachable as possible, because that means I can influence, and make more people happier.
I’m very open to getting my mind changed. I like participating in conversations that allow me to view things from a different perspective, so if I can help people appreciate objects and see things from a different perspective— if I can do that successfully as an artist— then I’ve really made it.