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On Bike Building: Caren Hartley

Make! A Season of Contemporary Craft continues with a series of talks, demos and displays celebrating the craft of designing and building the tailor-made bike in On Bike Building.

As cycling becomes more and more popular, so too has the demand for the bespoke bike. We met with Caren Hartley, founder of Hartley Cycles, to learn more about the creative process behind creating a bike and the parallels between aesthetic and functional design.

How did you first start your career in design?
For as long as I can remember I have made things, from all materials – paper, card, wire, fabric – basically anything I could get my hands on. I am lucky, I come from a family of makers – my Dad was a watchmaker turned builder and my mum made embarrassingly good fancy dress costumes! In the school play, when everyone else was dressed in parrot costumes made of bed sheets with cardboard beaks stuck on, I was a Harpy Eagle with fully articulated wings and headdress, made entirely of crepe paper! So making has always been there.

It was when I first got my hands on metal whilst on my A&D Foundation Course at my local tech college that things really clicked. I then went on to study a BA (Hons) in 3D Design and then an MA at the Royal College of Art. After college I worked as a jeweller to pay the bills and as fine artist to feed my passion for larger scale metalwork.

What sparked your move from building sculptures to bicycles and how did you come to establish Hartley Cycles?
The career jump into frame building came as a mixture of being dissatisfied with the fine art world and a desire to make more useful things, my gradual descent into the cycling community, and also the realisation that the bespoke steel bicycle was an object that perhaps I could be quite good at making. Once I had decided to make the jump, I realised there was a lot I needed to learn. I already had a large amount of design experience and metalworking skills, but I needed to learn how to use that to make bicycle shaped objects, and all the specific stages that it takes to turn a pile of tubes into something that doesn’t just look pretty but you can actually ride. So I took a course, worked alongside and for other framebuilders, and then just got stuck in; establishing Hartley Cycles in 2014. Since then, building the business has been a process of learning by doing – because I believe that’s the only way – with a lot of long hours. I have worked hard to refine my skills and build my reputation as a framebuilder and also the public profile of Hartley Cycles as a business, because it’s no good making great things if no one knows you’re doing it!

Making something, which is used for many years, enjoyed, ridden, scraped, chipped is brilliant!

Can you describe the creative process behind building a bicycle
When I’m building a frame there is a set process to go through:

– Designing geometry, selecting tubes & components for the build
– Cutting and mitring the tubes
– Brazing
– Loads of filing
– Polishing (which I hate, but the magpie in me loves)
– Painting
– Building into the finished bike with the components – ready for the customer to ride away

But it’s the bit before & after this that makes each bike interesting, it’s the bespoke element, the variable – which is the customer. The first stage is finding out what the customer wants, in a lot of cases you are getting to build their dream bike – which is quite a privilege. And trying to convert all their hopes and dreams into a bicycle design! Then there’s the making, and then the best bit, seeing the finished bicycle, and handing over to the customer to ride it.

My fine art practice was all about the biography of objects, how they changed as they were used and the relationships people built with them through continued use… but they were never used. So now making something, which is used for many years, enjoyed, ridden, scraped, chipped is brilliant!

What does a day in your workshop look like?
It varies immensely as Hartley Cycles is a very small company, so I can end up doing all sorts, but can be a combination of anything from emails and customer meetings, to cutting tubes and brazing, to painting frames. We just moved workshop so currently it’s moving heavy machinery and building stud walls!

There are often many different ways in which these functional needs can be met and so within this there is space for me to create something that is both practical and beautiful

How do you view the relationship with aesthetic design and functional design when it comes to bicycles?
I love the problem solving aspect of making something; working out which order things need to be completed in, how to make something better, or more simply, or most efficiently. How you can physically create an aesthetic ideal from the materials you have available. It’s the boundaries within a bicycle frame that make all of these things really interesting to me, because in order to make the bike perform in the best possible way there are limited areas within the frame where you can make your mark. I have strong opinions about the way I would like my bikes to look, so the end result is always a fine balance between aesthetics and function. The bikes’ primary reason for being is to perform in a way that fulfils its rider’s specific needs, so it has to function and function really well. But there are often many different ways in which these functional needs can be met and so within this there is space for me to create something that is both practical and beautiful.

How does the client/designer relationship impact the creative process?
Making a bespoke bike is always a collaborative process, but the amount to which this collaboration occurs can vary vastly between customers. At the very least each bike is tailored to its rider in size, geometry and ride characteristics. Where possible I try to start each customer relationship with a face-to-face meeting. This way I can get an understanding of both what they would like the bike to do functionally, i.e. riding style, type of terrain, carrying luggage etc. what they might like, not like and to some extent their personality and also how prescriptive they might want to be in terms of the overall aesthetic, or how much I can take the lead. Each bike is like a new mini design brief that we write together. Once these functional, and where necessary, aesthetic boundaries are set then I can start to design them the best bike that fulfils these needs.

What is it like to be a woman in what seems like quite a male dominated industry?
I think it’s been both useful and more difficult. When I started Hartley Cycles, I was the only woman in the UK making bikes, which made me stand out from the other builders, but I think it has also made it harder. For example, I have had on more than one occasion an assumed distrust in my abilities as a female builder, the assumption being made that I was not the person actually making the bikes and comments (often at trade shows) such as, ‘So who does your welding?’, ‘You pick the colours, yeh, but who makes them?’, ‘Does she really makes the bikes?’, ‘Ah, I knew there must be a man behind Hartley Cycles’. The comments can be quite funny, but it is also sad that in the 21st century in the UK there are still many people that believe women to be less capable than their male counterparts, and that their achievements are questioned when this is rarely the case when genders are reversed.

You were recently a finalist for the Woman’s Hour Craft Prize. How important are prizes like this in showcasing women’s design work?
It’s important to make clear that this prize was open to people from all genders, but that it was supported by BBC Woman’s Hour, and although none of the finalists were chosen based on their gender, 10 out of the 12 were women, which shows how strong the work of women in the craft sector is. The prize was really important as it was a great snapshot of the breadth of craft work in the UK today, everything from functional furniture and ceramics to large scale sculpture and performance. The coverage from BBC Woman’s Hour also brought the contemporary craft industry to new audiences, showing women excelling at the top of their chosen fields, which is hugely important for other women and young people to see.

Hartley Cycle’s Copper Leaf Light Tourer bike will be on display in the Barbican Shop from 3-8 May.

On Bike Building takes place from 3-27 May in the Barbican Shop.

Lead Photo: Christopher L Proctor