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Motorcycles, Mis-heard

July 9, 2010

As a designer and a cook, I’m familiar with the problem of doneness – how to know when to leave things alone, when to stop tweaking and seasoning and sub-dividing and fairing.  As one eminent theater director I once worked with put it, how to know when you’re “gilding the lily”, destroying what you’ve already made by adding further layers of “design”.  I am not speaking of minimalism – this is not reductivism, in fact often far from it.  It is the finely-tuned sense of when you have reached the top of the hill and are beginning to climb down the other side.

I’ve also come to respect the power of ignorance when designing – how sometimes working entirely outside one’s area of expertise can bring outstanding moments of insight simply by leaving out what most people put in automatically.  This is a tough skill to cultivate – ignorance can only take you so far (and certainly provides very little service to your client); once lost, willful naiveté must be cultivated: a constant practice of forgetting, of stepping outside the interiority of your profession.

Closely related is the accident of mis-hearing, either by mis-translation across cultures or through the generous gaps in memory.  Slight shifts in emphasis or material, amplified by human predilections towards obsession, has brought us the cargo cults, Japanese hot-rod culture, Cubism, some of Frank Lloyd Wright’s best work. Mis-hearing could be characterized as (copying + willful naiveté) – the best artists and designers derive tremendous novelty and invention from it, the worst disappear quickly from history.

My visual aid for this post comes from the blog The Selvedge Yard, an always-excellent if often somewhat testosteronic blog of 50’s, 60’s and 70’s nostalgia.  Shinya Kimura, the founder of ZERO Engineering and one of the originators of the “ZERO style” of motorcycles, founded Chabott Engineering in California in 2006.  “ZERO Style” seems to fetishize  vintage motorcycle machinery, but in a way that seems very foreign to the chrome-and-glossy paint Harley Davidsons one tends to see in the US.

The bikes on Kimura’s website are shown in various states of undress – many unselfconsciously  sport raw aluminum fittings and fuel tanks.  They seem to be pieced together or adapted from older bikes – and not always rare or glamorous ones: one is built from parts of a little 1960 Honda Hoon.  The aesthetic is what originally touched my curiousity – its too unstudied to be called “steampunk”,  though the bikes celebrate raw metal and the work of the machinist.  The metalwork is far from perfect and clearly handcrafted – you can clearly see the hammer-marks and welds.  The bikes have the patina of an object found in a machine-shop, worn but not rusted, well-polished but not mirror-finished.  They celebrate the motorcycle as an insider’s art – these bikes don’t need to impress non-enthusiasts or sell magazines.  They look like they were produced by one man in an slightly under-stocked machine-shop for his own edification – the bike is done when he likes it.

Kimura’s work feels like remix culture, but I admit that I don’t know the ingredients.  Looking through the bikes on the website, there seems to be a certain amount of variation and exposition on formal themes.  The designs also have an improvisational lightness to them, making the best of the ingredients at hand.  These are clearly one-off, not designs for production.

I admit to a fascination with television shows like American Chopper, which chronicles the design and building of custom motorcycles.  They’re using the same same tools we’ve appropriated in architecture: 3d modelling, plasma cutters, cnc mills; there’s as much emphasis on form as any of Zaha’s latest confections (within the operational confines of a vehicle), even the conflicts between the artistic will and client are familiar.  The process they portray seems at once cutting-edge and untroubled: they aren’t concerned so much with triangulating the exact location of the avant-garde so much as dipping into an energetic zeitgeist and channeling it.  It is easy to push these choppers over to “low design” – Kimura’s work exposes a different, richer register to the form.

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