How an astrophysicist who's worked for NASA is using tech to create custom-made shelves in SA

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Maria Kapala is a trained astrophysicist and data scientist who has worked with NASA, and was used to solving puzzles, analysing problems and coming up with solutions to them. She's using her skills to create stunning shelves. Image supplied by Urban Espresso
Maria Kapala is a trained astrophysicist and data scientist who has worked with NASA, and was used to solving puzzles, analysing problems and coming up with solutions to them. She's using her skills to create stunning shelves. Image supplied by Urban Espresso
  • Pandemic life has given us plenty of opportunities to examine the four walls of our home, as we’ve exercised on our balconies, worked in our living rooms and homeschooled from our dining room tables.
  • Cape Town-based Maria Kapala was no exception, as she found herself using her expertise as a data scientist and astrophysicist to design custom-made shelves amid the pandemic.
  • Originally from Poland, Maria, together with her tech entrepreneur husband Michal Lyczek, then started their business Mable, which uses a custom software tool that allows clients to customise their shelves.


Staying home, huh? Who would have thought we’d be doing so much of it over these past 18 months? 

This forced time within our homes has also made us try our hand at things we may previously have outsourced – and we don’t only mean trying to bake our own bread. With more time on our hands, we’ve developed an increased reliance on our own skills to find solutions to problems that we may have formerly relied on third parties or companies to do for us.

As a result, there’s been a surge in DIY and gardening, and we’re seeing the statistics to back this up. Well-known UK DIY store B&Q, for example, reported a 25% year-on-year sales increase in 2020. It’s not only a British trend though: South African retailers specialising in hardware, paint and glass reported an 11% rise in sales last year, compared to the same time frame in 2019, according to Statistics South Africa.

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Polish-born, Cape Town-based Maria Kapala certainly found this experience to be true last year when she looked for a bookshelf that would perfectly fit her living space. She wanted to display her books and personal items in her lounge, but all the shelves available online weren’t the correct dimensions, nor did they seem like they were very good quality. 

So, frustrated by the lack of options available to her, Maria decided to do it herself. This wasn’t that surprising: as a trained astrophysicist and data scientist who’d worked with NASA, she was used to solving puzzles, analysing problems and coming up with solutions to them. Her move to Cape Town in 2015 came after she completed her PhD in Germany and was invited to be a researcher at the University of Cape Town. 

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As an academic focused on developing an understanding of the evolution of galaxies, Maria drew on this experience when conceiving the idea of classic, beautifully made shelves – which individuals could then customise to fit their exact requirements. 

After woodworking at home and playing around with various techniques and styles of shelves using sustainable Birch plywood, she got closer to designing and creating the perfect set of shelves. She named their new company Mable (“meble” means “furniture” in Polish), and together with her husband and tech entrepreneur Michal Lyczek, the business was born. 

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astrophysicist, nasa, data scientist, shelves, tec

Maria Kapala is using her tech skills to create stunning shelves. Image supplied by Urban Espresso


One thing that makes Mable unique is their custom software tool that allows the ordinary home or décor lover to get creative and customise their shelves. They can adjust the height, width and depth of the shelves using easy sliders, they can pick from three key configurations, and they can even choose the colours of their doors from a pre-selected palette, including gunmetal grey, classic white and trendy mustard.

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This degree of customizability, thanks to the power of tech, seems to be a rising trend in the new business space. It’s a niche that Mable hopes will satisfy those who love bold, modern pieces that reflect their unique style and life.

If we’ve learnt anything from this pandemic, it’s that adaptability is one of humankind’s most valuable characteristics. The ability to adapt to changing consumer needs, and the actual production of products like these that are adaptable themselves, is a trend that’s here to stay. As the saying goes, change is the only constant.

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