A few weeks back I had the pleasure of attending an event here in Minneapolis where bike designer Sky Yeager spoke about her company Shinola and their design philosophy. With Thanks to Leah McMullen I was also invited to dine with Sky and a few other friends of Shinola like the makers of my favorite espresso at Dogwood Coffee Co.
Since the inception of Shinola I have watched with tremendous interest as the company built a great brand around an uncommon thread that connects what are to many a set of seemingly unrelated products. As we discussed over dinner that evening Shinola has discovered a winning formula simply by making a series of connections that should have been obvious to marketers years ago and combining this with an authenticity that is increasingly rare among “brand driven” companies that seem to wander off in all sorts of different directions trying to capitalize on their success in their initial area of focus.
My first exposure to Shinola was when I saw the beautiful Runwell bike on display at One on One bike shop in Minneapolis in January of 2013. It was around this same time that I was reading Grant Petersons book “Just Ride” and having a bit of an epiphany regarding my own fondness for cycling and understanding what it was about biking that appealed to me so much. The Runwell epitomized all of the new things I was thinking about bikes and why they are so vital to our culture.
Unlike many of those I know who are cycling enthusiasts I don’t have a history of racing bikes beyond a few cyclocross races in the past couple of years and I have not built a career in the industry even though I had a great job at the local institution that is Penn Cycle while I was in college.
My history with bikes is simply that of a commuter and lover of recreational riding. However there is more to it for me than just a love of cycling, like many people my love affair is not just with the act but with the machine itself. A passion for mechanical objects that extends like it does for many others into an appreciation of (mostly vintage) motorcycles, cars, watches, cameras and in my case musical instruments.
Despite the fact that a Runwell bike was not within my means I was impressed by the fact that my initial inquiry to Shinola about the sizing of the bikes via email had garnered a thoughtful response from the bike designer herself. Fast forward a few months and when I got an email invitation to become a “foundry’ member by pre-ordering a Shinola Runwell watch I was feeling just flush enough with cash at the time to jump at the opportunity to purchase what turned out to be the only watch I own that has appreciated in value since I purchased it. This in spite of the fact that I own a couple automatic Swiss watches from pedigreed brands that the watch snobs of the world respect far more than Shinola simply because Shinola has not (yet) made a purely mechanical watch.
Our dinner conversation that evening centered around the fact that among lovers of bikes the connection to watches makes perfect sense, while people who aren’t enthusiasts for either object can’t see the connection. Further we discovered that we shared an appreciation for vintage cars and racing, (Sky and her husband have been involved with vintage racing for many years), cameras, restoring old road bikes and mechanical objects in general and we both knew all sorts of people who were enthusiasts for not just one but most or even all of these same objects.
My own fascination with mechanical objects is as much or even more about design than it is about mechanical engineering. When it comes to rakish rides in particular I think the design element is easily appreciated by a broad range of people who may not have much interest at all in the mechanics of how something like a classic car or motorcycle operates.
With classic cars and bikes the mechanical appeal of an object is inextricably intertwined with the historical context in which it was created and that is the context in which collectors evaluate and appreciate such objects. The best example I can think of here is the classic muscle or sports car, which may look beautifully sleek and fast but will likely struggle to match the performance of even the most pedestrian of the modern soulless transportation appliances on the market. The fact that a 60’s Ferrari is almost as fast as a 2010 Toyota Camry in no way diminishes the appeal of the former or enhances that of the latter to a car enthusiast because in 20 years no one will give even a passing glance to that disposable Camry but people will still appreciate the classic beauty and elegant design of a 50’s or 60’s vintage Jaguar or Ferrari.
It is in this context of connoisseurship that appreciation of classic and vintage vehicles of all types thrives amidst the banal landscape of the modern disposable “consumer product”, it’s planned obsolescence and it’s demographically optimized and market researched appeal. Why is it that so few companies today make products that will have lasting appeal or achieve anything like “classic” status?
Which brings me back to my dinner conversation with Sky Yeager and the appeal of Shinola. In a world of “lifestyle brands” that often make me want to puke there is something decidedly different about Shinola that is based on the fact that the company seems largely disinterested in conventional marketing wisdom and very genuine about it’s deep commitment to the part it is playing in reviving the fortunes of Detroit and American manufacturing.
I grew up in that strange era of the 70’s and 80’s when “made in America” transformed from a source of pride to seemingly anachronistic and even nostalgic longing for a era that was long gone. In the 20 to 30 years since then America has built it’s economy on things that were “designed” here but usually manufactured in other parts of the world. From iPhones to clothes to computer programs we outsourced making stuff while continuing to dominate the world when it comes to ideas about what to make.
In recent years Americans of a certain vintage have discovered that maybe we lost something along the way. Books like Shop Class as Soulcraft, the “maker” movement and trends towards small scale manufacturing such as micro brewing are redefining what Made in America means and re-establishing working with our hands and the American flag on the label as source of pride and a symbol of top quality by any global measure.
My own inspiration to begin restoring bikes and to learn the craft of building them comes on the heels of spending years working in jobs where I’ve strained my brain while sitting on my ass. I don’t have the luxury, or if I am totally honest maybe it’s the courage, to give up the income that comes with my “day job” quite yet, and thanks to modern technology I may never have to, but that is not going to stop me from spending my evenings and weekends using an oxy-acetelne torch rather than a keyboard.
I owe a debt of gratitude to Sky Yeager and Shinola, as well as countless other skilled brewers and makers for leading the movement and inspiring me, and I expect many others, to rediscover a sense of pride in that classic phrase “Made in America”. And yes I realize that both of the pictures in the post are of items made in Europe…oh well…