Collaboration Spotlight: Art + Industry (Michael Downes)

What inspired you to collaborate for the Constructor’s Design Challenge competition?

I was very inspired by the first Oregon Manifest; I wanted to be involved. I have very little metalworking experience, even though I’ve designed a lot of bicycles; I haven’t been on the “get your hands dirty” end. Looking at what Ken Wheeler at Renovo was doing with wood bikes inspired me; I saw great potential even though it’s a labor-intensive method. Jeff (Sayler) is my neighbor and a wooden boat builder; I thought exploring wood as material for a cargo bike offered opportunities not available with more traditional bike materials.

How far along are you in the design process?

We started by building a proof of concept – just a basic design that we built kind of down-and-dirty; not too much finishing. Our approach differed from Renovo’s, which is basically to start with a big chunk of wood and carve tubes out of it. We had access to a C&C machine, and took a different approach, using sheets of wood and letting the wood lead us to what it could be. The proof of concept was a huge success – it exceeded our expectations by a long shot. We’ve been riding it around for a couple months; it’s nicely unremarkable, in that it functions just like a normal cargo bike. Now we’re putting what we learned on that bike into a second model, which will be the final we’ll take to Oregon Manifest.

The design criteria are aimed at inspiring new solutions and flexibility – how is this influencing your thinking? Are you taking it back to square one?

Our interest was this: Can you build a reliable utility bike out of wood? Cargo bikes offer benefits from a functional aspect – the rider being able to stand, the ability to carry a load are integral to the form. Most bikes don’t really do these things naturally; it’s more like you have to add things to the basic design. The ability to carry something on the bike is the number-one priority, and that’s the thing most people try to work around and shoehorn some solution into… the past bikes for Oregon Manifest were beautiful, but they were essentially just nice bikes with racks added on. What constitutes a cargo bike is not cemented; the form offers design flexibility.

The competition stresses fresh and modern – how will that affect aesthetic decisions?

If you think about the term “modern” and the modernism movement, the central tenet is honesty in materials. You don’t hide the material, you celebrate it for what it is. Our bike absolutely does that – wood is what it is, and it’s all visible. I love that on a bike you can see everything involved, and how it works.
Traditionally, bikes are made of tubes, but we’re using these slab surfaces. The aesthetics should be led by the structure and materials.

What does true flexibility in a modern utility bike mean to you?

That you can quickly and easily transfer from the school run with the kids on the morning to a trip to the garden store for a big bag of mulch, then do the grocery shopping, and in the summer you can use it for camping. You have to be able to change its purpose quickly and easily. With a cargo bike, that’s easy – it has a cargo bed that can be configured a number of ways. With the torsion box you can use the spaces within it for multiple functions. It’s the simple things it can do: it can carry long items, like 2x4s, or a stepladder, because it has a lot of length in its wheelbase. It can carry wide objects that hang over the side; you can just strap them on.

In America, the concept of a utility bike is anything that’s not set up for performance-based recreational riding. “Cargo” and “utility” are really the same category. There’s this audience for self-actualization use – weekend warriors who want to feel like they’re riding the Tour de France. But in Europe there’s this ideal where the bike is like a vacuum cleaner – you keep it in the closet and take it out when you need it. It’s a tool like a broom or a mop. I think it’s funny how in America and England there’s this romantic version of the Dutch bike, where people are paying hundreds of dollars for one. In Holland they buy them for $40 at Walmart and ride them until they disintegrate, then go buy another one.

At its heart this is a competition – how do you feel about the competitive aspect? Will it drive innovation?

Our project is not in competition with anyone… I don’t believe anyone else is building a wooden cargo bike; this is really esoteric. But then, we can’t see what others are doing. We’ve been very public about our project, hoping to get feedback and ideas from others, but not many people have responded.
Most traditional builders have it all in their head. As an industrial designer, it’s all about process: iterations, development, prototypes. Frame builders don’t work that way. So I don’t think we’re in competition. The competitive aspect is more of a means to and end, to add a kind of frisson to the event. It will incubate ideas, and advance the conversation about what a bike is and what it can do.

With bikes, innovation seems to be incremental – shaving weight, finessing shifting – but this competition is asking for BIG innovation – do you think that’s possible?

I’m not convinced we’ll see really big innovations; the bike is a very mature product. There are mostly minor increments in innovation, and it will pretty much stay that way. It’s tough to improve a bike in a radical way – it’s really quite a perfect product.

Why do you think innovation is important for the everyday citizen cyclist? How can it change why and how people ride bikes?

Michael: These bikes by themselves are not going to get more people riding – it will take more bike infrastructure to get people out riding. As far as design innovation, I’ve heard the bicycle industry described as an hourglass – at the wide top there are builders and manufacturers who put out all these great products, and at the wide bottom is the public, which is receptive to all the ideas. In the middle is the bottleneck: retailers. They’re the biggest barrier, because many of them are in the dark ages. They’re dark, dirty places run by failed third-cut racers, and they’re not appealing. But smart retailers – like the Bike Gallery here in Portland – are trying to create an appealing retail environment. When it’s hip to have a cool, pretty bike, people will buy them. Right now in New York City, having a Schwinn three-speed is seen as a fashion accessory for a woman in her 20s.

What about collaborating on this design challenge is the most interesting/challenging/rewarding?

Our collaboration has been fantastic. It’s the first time I’ve collaborated to this depth on a project. Jeff and I were friends already, but it really works because we trust each other’s skills. He knows wood and glue and the materials side; I know bikes. We trust each other and we find a solution. The proof of concept came together pretty much as planned – it’s been a lot of fun. I can’t say enough about Jeff’s skills with his hands – I’m not much of a craftsman; I’m more of the big-picture guy. It’s the best collaboration I’ve ever worked on.