Let’s get one thing out the way right away.
I am not a designer. Not any more.
I strayed from that path many years ago. But that doesn’t mean I don’t miss it or don’t think like a designer. I do, a lot.
You could say, design is in my blood. My paternal grandfather was an artist, but he died when I was two or three. What I do remember of him is what he left behind: a picture of a racehorse.
It hung in my grandmother’s front room as the centre piece and I would stare at it for hours whenever I visited her. It was drawn in cigarette ash and chalk on black paper. It was delicate, detailed, subtle and a phenomenal piece of art.
It disappeared when she died.
Sold to an unknown bidder or stolen perhaps by an unscrupulous relative. Who knows. But it was the benchmark I admired and tried to beat. I’m not sure if I ever did beat it, but I used it as a means of judging my own progress and skill.
My maternal grandfather was an artist of a different kind: he was a carpenter. I admired how he could carve and construct furniture out of something that grew out of the ground and turn it into something else entirely, bending it to his will without breaking it.
Maybe that’s where my love and thirst for design came from. Taking something that already existed and transforming it. I guess that’s what they mean by design.
I never cared to get into the terminology while I was training or in my early career. I just liked drawing and making things, and thinking about how to solve problems. At some point in my early thirties I gave up being a designer, but I’ve never stopped looking at the world through designer’s eyes.
I’m not a biker either.
But my dad took me on his scrambler when I was seven years old and I loved that too. We tore along the road, making a terrifying jack-hammer noise as we rode and leaving the stench of exhaust in our wake.
I held on for dear life. Tears streamed down my face as I stared down the wind. It is one of the single most exhilarating things I’ve ever done, but I didn’t get bitten by the bike bug. That’s where my interest in bikes started and stopped.
Or so I thought.
A few weeks ago, I came across the Death Machines of London website, perhaps I saw a tweet or something, I can’t remember. But what I saw caught my eye. They’ve built a bike called Up Yours Copper and it’s both a work of art and incredible piece of engineering at the same time.
For me, that is the very definition of design: the integration of art and engineering. The creation of something new and inspiring from previously unconnected elements.
From the exhaust that’s hidden inside the back seat and shrouded by the light, to the delicate grooves on the handles and the hand-crafted wooden seat. It is a thing of beauty.
When I showed my brother – who is a biker – he said “Yeah, but why would you give it a wooden seat? All looks and no comfort!”
This from a man who insisted on driving a mark one Mini when he was a teenager: the epitome of comfort. But this is the point about design. Sometimes we sacrifice comfort for style. Performance for safety. Durability for cost.
We make all manner of trade offs to get to a place we call “perfect”. That doesn’t mean perfect for everyone. It means perfect for the dream we have in our heads of how something should look, feel or function. Perfect for the people who share that dream.
It’s not perfect for everyone.
So this beautiful beast, to me, is perfect. I don’t care if the seat isn’t comfortable. I’m never going to ride it. And even if I did, I’d suffer for it. Because someone else has poured their heart and soul into making something that they call perfect, atypical – abnormal even – and way beyond middle of the road.
That’s what I admire about this bike.
Where is the joy in making everything comfortable? That’s not the path to innovation, it’s the path to a lukewarm life. Mediocrity is a death sentence.
George Bernard Shaw once said, “The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.”
Is this bike unreasonable?
Yes. It jolts me out of my mediocre middle-aged life and takes me to a place where I can appreciate the time and effort that’s gone into it. The fury and determination behind every bit of spit and polish that went into it.
More than that. I can feel inspired that other people are also seeking perfection and will forgo comfort to get it.
Is it progress?