The work of British product designer BEN WILSON embodies a passion for bikes, skateboards and machinery. Wilson's design aesthetic is imbued with a deep understanding of street culture and its inherent language. His work communicates a vibrant energy and his client list reflects this active nature including global brands such as Levis, Nike, Adidas, Stussy, Artemide and Audi. Recently invited to curate the Design Museum Tank with an engaging and educational survey of cycle culture, called FIXED, Wilson shares his enthusiasm and experience for subcultures, design and the process of making.
Q. How did your interest in design begin and evolve to become your vocation and passion?
A. As a child I was always interested in making things. I have vivid memories of carving a boat out of timber for days and I remember the feeling of riding a bicycle for the first time without stabilizers. I think that the early connection I felt with machinery still holds a strong influence on what I do today. At school I always felt more at home with creative subjects rather than academia. My father and brother are both graphic designers and my mother designs hand-made knitwear so I come from a very creative family. In fact, my older brother Oscar works on the graphics for many of my projects with me. It just works really well – we respect each other, there's trust and we're good mates.
Q. Where did your interest in craftsmanship and the way machinery works start to take shape?
A. After two years of studying three-dimensional design, I enrolled in a crafts course at Manchester Metropolitan University from 1995 to 1998. It was an incredible course because it gave me three years of intensive workshop experience. I began to really understand how things go together which I think is vitally important for a designer. In the last decade, computer technology has really progressed so that you can design directly on the computer but I still think it’s an important skill for a designer to be 'hands-on' and understand the way things are made. Still, I wasn’t that comfortable with crafted work because I am a strong believer that good design should be about problem solving and shared, affordable design so a lot of my work is engineered rather than crafted.
Q. Can you describe your first product or project after your studies?
A. At University I had designed a bicycle and I felt that the bike really represented what I was about. By default really, I had this product so I started to market and sell it, and that led to commissions to hand build bespoke bikes based on my original design but slightly altered; like a tailor-made suit for differing clients.
Q. It seems like a very specific market, how did you branch into other kinds of products?
A. After about a year, I became known as 'Bike Ben' and the feeling was that I just did bikes. After about the third or fourth bike I felt I didn’t want to keep reproducing the same product – not that I wanted to completely stop making bikes but it was a very labour intensive process. So I went back to study product design at the Royal College of Art (RCA) to evolve and refine my ideas. I did a couple of major projects there that were well received, one being the 'Tilting Trike' – a bike that was designed for children of all abilities. The project won both the Lord Snowdon and the Helen Hamlin prizes and then the charitable children's organisation Wizz Kids funded the project for a further year of research.
Another project that I started at the RCA and is now in full mass production is the 'Fig Rig' – a lightweight aluminium camera mount. The prototype was exhibited at the Design Museum in 2002 and it came out as a production product in 2005. So even while I was studying, I was engaged with industry. It's difficult to take a step back if you've already been out there making your products. So the reason I went back to college was to make the transition from making them individually to manufacturing them as designed products.
Q. While you were at the RCA did you have any desire to look to a more established designer as a mentor?
A. I had already done some freelance work for Ron Arad and I learnt a huge amount from that experience but I realised that I am a solo sort of person. About three or four years ago, I was incredibly fortunate to meet Sir Clive Sinclair who is still one of my clients today and I still work for him on a freelance basis. Sir Clive was the chairman of a creative company called Daka in Hong Kong. It was a perfect arrangement; I worked three days a week as a product design consultant for their research lab and then at night I would work on my own projects so it was very flexible. The experience gave me an incredible grounding in the real world of developing products. It was a vitally important learning curve in my development and I think has directly contributed to where I am now.
Q: How did you learn to balance your own creative needs within an essentially commercially constrained environment?
A. There is a level of frustration between the designer's ideas and the client's needs but ultimately I am a product designer, not an artist. I'm interested in art and some people say some of the objects I create are art but I don’t see myself as that. I am an industrial designer and I design products. The installation I've created here at the Design Museum is still product design in my opinion. I'm solving problems and communicating a message to the general public, an educational message about how a bicycle goes together. I have a personal bugbear about the way people seem to think that objects fall out of trees rather than understanding the process of how they are made. So for the last three years I have done a lot of work with graphics to show how things go together in a deliberately clear, 'in your face' style so there's no hidden messages.
Q. Does your passionate engagement with contemporary subcultures such as skater and bike culture contribute and influence your work?
A. Yes, very much so. I was brought up in the BMX era and I had an older brother who raced BMX so I felt very connected with that culture. It wasn't just the bikes themselves; it was the whole subculture – the clothing, the graphics and people were doing things on bicycles that hadn’t been seen before. The movement was heavily influenced by the sport of Motor cross; it was a big thing at the time and had a separate culture and language. I was also brought up on skateboarding and I still skateboard today.
Q. Your clients seem to be predominantly from a sporting or youth culture market - is this a natural evolution or a deliberate strategy?
I have a good understanding of many of my clients needs because we were brought up on the same kinds of things. For example, for a client like Stussy, I don’t have to try to get into the minds of a skateboarder when I am designing a product because I am one. It's ingrained in what I do but it's not completely who I am. I also look at art, architecture and I am into lots of other things as well, such as music – the more things you are influenced by, the better.
Q. Your installation for the Design Museum tank has been very popular and seems to suggest that there's a burgeoning interest in the subculture surrounding bicycles at the moment?
A. There's definitely been more interest in the past few years. There was a time when no one would even look at anything that I did. I still have a pile of rejection letters from practically every bicycle company that I wrote to with my concepts. In the UK, I was out on a limb and doing what I believed in and eventually, the industry catches up and you start to see things similar to your ideas coming out. Hopefully, the Tank exhibition at the Design Museum sums up the history of the fixed gear bicycle and also shows that the fixed gear bike has been part of our culture since 1888 when it was first manufactured. The blueprint of that first style has progressed but in some respects, it has also changed very little. I love bicycles and I feel honoured to be able to curate an exhibition and share my passion with others.
Q. There has been a big shift in trying to encourage the community to use bicycles as a sustainable method of transport. Do you see a time where bikes will become as culturally integral to a community as in the Netherlands or Denmark?
A. That would be fantastic! It definitely has to come from government. There are definite changes; there are more cycle lanes and an understanding of the whole ethos of cycling. Most car drivers now have a bike as well so there's a respect for the way cyclists need to use the roads. People are learning to choose a more appropriate product for their needs. For example, in Holland or Denmark if they need to go to their local store they wouldn’t go in their car, they would get on their bike. It will be interesting to see if we start to see that kind of shift in the next 10 years in the UK.
Q. Do think it's important to invest in research or speculative products or do you only work on commissioned projects?
A. I have three bicycle projects in my studio at the moment and one of them is a self-initiated project. It's a similar process to the way large companies do concept cars but it’s not for production, it's a project just for my own interest. When I started out twelve years ago I handmade and built 'lowrider' bicycles because I couldn’t afford to import them from America so I want to get back to doing a few projects that are just for my own satisfaction. I'm also doing some new furniture pieces in the studio at the moment that are in the early research stage and I'm working on some toys that I am going to manufacture myself.
Q: Do you think there is a movement back towards quality objects for children rather than commercial toys that are about consumption over quality?
A. Well, I remember the toys that I used to play with and they were always made from quality yet simple materials. I designed an aeroplane that had very simple mechanics when I was about thirteen and now I'm revisiting that project, fifteen years on. When I made that aeroplane I learnt a lot about mechanics. Design is a subject that is glamorous to a lot of kids now at a really early age so it provides an opportunity to make something that kids can connect with while using the process of playing with toys to show kids how things actually work.
Q Luigi Colani said in his recent lecture at the Design Museum that he believed that designers should be philosophers first and designers second - is this a sentiment you agree with?
A. Yes, I think that a designer is a problem solver. Good design should be about creating objects that are sustainable and that people will want to own and keep for a long time. If you take my 'Fig Rig' camera rig as an example, it is designed for functionality to fit within an existing kit and, hopefully, it is also an aesthetic object. Yet, in 20 years time it will do the same thing and look exactly the same as it does now. I think it's very important that, as designers, we think about the future and the objects we create rather than just adding more 'throwaway' objects to the world. It's an interesting dilemma. For example, when you draw the idea for a new design in a sketchbook, you don't often think about the fact that if the design is successful, then it can quickly become part of a very large operation. If large volumes are ordered, then they require manufacturing, packing, freighting, unloading etc. As a designer, you are part of the problem but hopefully you can also be part of the solution if you think about design from an ethical standpoint.
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1976 Born in Barnet, North London.
1980ish Learns to ride a bike with no stabilizers.
1980s Grows up on skateboarding and BMX!!
1992 Leaves school.
1994 Starts playing around with custom bicycles.
1995 Completes a BTEC in 3d design Barnet College North London.
1996 Had a residency at the infamous Hacienda nightclub.
1997 Designs and makes first bicycle from scratch, won a bursary to go to California in the search of lowrider knowledge.
1998 Completed a BA Hons in 3d design - wood, metal, ceramic and glass at Manchester Metropolitan university.
1999 Set up Downlow a company specializing in self-propelled transport solutions. Worked on a project for Ron Arad Associates.
2001Graduated from RCA with an MA in Design Products, won the Lord Snowden Prize, HHRC Prize and Boarders prize. Exhibits in Issey Miakeys gallery, Tokyo.
2002 Finished a year’s research post within the HHRC RCA with the tilting trike.
2003 Started consultancy work for Sir Clive Sinclair/ Daka Research Has first solo show at Aram Gallery entitled Chairfix and manufactures the product.
2004 Figrig wins an award gets granted worldwide patent and is put in to production by Manfrotto.
2005 Creates the Swarvoski lowrider bike’ a hand made crystal encrusted low rider. Creates a range of products based on ‘chairfix’ for Heal’s.
2006 Sets up design studio in East London. Creates the custom Stussy Zoomer for Honda.
2007 Lives and works in east London, designs for a large variety of different clients. Designs and curates FIXED for the Tank at the Design Museum. Pedal powered Lambo with artist Benadict Radcliffe a full size pedal powered Lambo!
2008 Exhibits at 21-21 Insight, Tokyo.