Tuesday, December 14, 2010

A Purist’s Penchant for Two-Wheeled Machines

The following article, presenting a view of bike collecting, appeared in the Wall Street Journal.

Spin Master
Textile designer Michael Maharam has a purist’s penchant for two-wheeled machines

Michael Maharam is not an animated speaker, but you can tell he doesn’t like something by the way he drops his voice and taps his fingers on his immaculately uncluttered desk. “The Campagnolo sets going back to the ’70s and ’80s are incredibly beautiful—sculpted, polished aluminum,” he says. “The new stuff is carbon fiber, which I find to be too flashy.” Tap.

“Flashy” is not a term of endearment for Maharam, a passionate collector of handsomely designed bicycles and the creative principal of the eponymous textile company, known in design circles for its collaborations with everyone from Nike to Hella Jongerius to Paul Smith. The 1931 Bianchi track bike restored by Milan’s Franco Spernicelli with its weathered leather saddle and varnished wooden rims on display in Maharam’s rigorously spare, light-drenched New York headquarters could not be described as flashy. Nor the 1988 Colnago Duall with its distinctive dual aluminum down tubes, simple black decals and that “sculptural” vintage Campagnolo component set. Nor the cobalt-blue Giraffe leaning against a nearby bookshelf, a city bike built custom for Maharam in a tiny shop outside of Tokyo. All exude a pleasing elegance and stripped-down simplicity.

At a moment when bicycles have established themselves as fetishized signifiers of cool, Maharam’s design-driven stable of rare and one-of-a-kind handmade machines stands out. It is not the biggest or priciest collection in the world—12 bikes, vintage and new, spread between his office, warehouse, Manhattan apartment and summer home in Merano, Italy—but it may well be the most exquisite. “My collection isn’t about what’s the most expensive, or what will accrue the most value,” he says. “It’s about classicism. I like a bike to have traditional references in its construction, and I have a fascination with functionality.”

“His bikes are true showpieces,” says Slate Olson, general manager of the U.S. division at cycling apparel company Rapha, which recently collaborated with Maharam on a limited-edition camel cycling cap. “It’s about quality over quantity.” Adds fashion designer Paul Smith: “What Michael likes, and I share the same view, are these small-production specialist bikes, made by guys that are happy to make a few bikes a year or a month.”

Such as: Danish builder Rasmus Gjesing of Cykelmageren, who constructed a track bike with wooden hubs for Maharam (Maharam had a bright-red version built for Smith as a gift). Also, Sacha White of Vanilla Bicycles, who created what could be Maharam’s crown jewel, a steel-frame mustard-yellow road bike, to which Maharam added 1986 first-generation C-Record Campagnolo gearing (Vanilla has a five-year waiting list for new customers). “He sees things differently from your typical bike nerd,” says White, who co-curated with Maharam a recent Museum of Arts and Design show featuring a selection of American and Italian handmade bicycles. Maharam’s Vanilla bears discreet flourishes—a chrome-plated stem, hexagonal aluminum handlebar plugs—adornments that Maharam specially commissioned from White. “He was interested in every detail being perfect,” White says.

Maharam is an aesthete, but not one afraid to get his hands dirty. A capable mechanic, he’s worked on, and ridden, all of his bikes. He tinkered with bikes as a kid and today they still appeal to him as practical objects as well as paragons of design. For a man who spends a small fortune on vintage Ducatis and Porsches (two more of his obsessions), bicycles, at a few thousand dollars each, are not extravagant keepsakes. “It’s one of the most noble machines on the planet,” Maharam says of the humble bicycle. “It’s tiny. It weighs nothing. It transports you, gives you exercise. It’s a beautiful thing, what it represents.”

Sources: Franco Spernicelli: Myoldbicycle.com; Cykelmageren: Cykelmageren.dk; Vanilla Bicycles: Vanillabicycles.com

Photos: from article, the Masi Special was custom-built for Maharam in 2007; Maharam in his offices; Maharam with his custom Vanilla road bicycle

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