On a roll: Euro Cargo bikes mix art, sustainability
German designer Till Wolfer landed in Cincinnati last month to build bikes. Specifically, two, three-wheeled aluminum contraptions modeled after those he has built in the Germany and Denmark for the past two years.
Lured by an upcoming art exhibit and plans for 90 miles of new bicycle lanes in the city, Wolfer, part of the N55 design collective
headquartered jointly in Hamburg, Germany, and Copenhagen, Denmark, chose the Queen City for his first ever American project.
But to build the lightweight, road-worthy and sleek Cargo Bikes within the narrow time frame allotted for the project, he needed his tools. Which, after he landed, remained in New York.
“I enjoyed my stay in Cincinnati a lot, I met a lot of friendly and interesting people, but from the beginning of the project, it was a little bit chaotic,” Wolfer says. “The luggage got lost for six days, which was not funny, and delayed the whole project”
Still, within two weeks, Wolfer pulled together the materials he needed—after numerous trips to hardware stores and bike shops around the city.
Wolfer, 29, has the look of an urban revolutionary, a look reflected in his vehicles. He wears plain black clothes, and crackled boots of phthalo green.
He blends stoicism, rigidity and coolness effortlessly; and his bikes carry the same imprint. To create them, he ratchets together fresh aluminum tubes with steel screws, designed in formations to create maximum strength, easy operation and smooth rides.
He specializes in the design of bikes, but more specifically, in what he calls “open source” vehicles, or bikes made from easily bought materials with hand tools that anyone can use.
Once he builds a vehicle, he creates a manual—complete with lists of hardware and tools, and measurements for materials—and posts them online for the use of all in the creative commons.
Sue Spaid first invited the Euro designer to the city. The curator of the upcoming Contemporary Art Center
exhibition Green Acres: Artists Farming Fields, Greenhouses and Abandoned Lots
, knew of his work and wanted to commission a piece for the show.
“Because of the way N55 works, they like to solve people’s problems,” Spaid says. She proposed that N55 work with the Civic Garden Center to solve a problem related to the exhibit’s theme.
“Greene Acres is a survey,” she explains. “It starts in the late 1960s and goes through 2012. The emphasis is on 80 percent of works created in the last five years. This is a show where you’ll see collaborations between artists and farmers, and sometimes artists doing the farming themselves.”
The Civic Garden Center
offered a practical problem ripe for an artist’s solution: transporting produce to farmers’ markets from gardens around Cincinnati without using a car.
Wolfer is not a farmer, but a sustainability-minded artist. The Cargo Bikes represent the first project to be completed in the Cincinnati by the N55 design collective, whose unique ventures include modular housing units, various land and water vehicles, and even a walking house, all with environmentally and eco-friendly designs.
Civic Garden Center gardens coordinator Peter Huttinger found two local urban farmers to be part of the Cargo Bike project—farmers who could put the two new bikes to use. One is Dylan Tennison of Findlay Market Gardens
, the other Charles Griffin of the Enright Ridge Urban EcoVillage
The cargo vehicles Wolfer designed for Cincinnati are similar to previously constructed vehicles now in use in Copenhagen, with some specially made alterations for American and specifically Cincinnati landscape and topography.
Because the streets are just plain bigger, Wolfer redesigned the vehicles’ cargo bays to be wider; to compensate for the city’s hills, Wolfer included a system of seven gears to make climbing easier.
Now the Cargo Bikes are on the roads, literally. Tennison and members of the Enright Ridge EcoVillage use them to move produce, soil, equipment and even people around town, from garden to market and back.
In late September, one Cargo Bike will leave the streets to go on display at the CAC during the Green Acres
show, but Till won’t be around to see it. After heading back to Europe carrying a lighter load, he notes that return airfare would be too expensive. And he is, after all, working to create a sustainable world.
Photos by Jack Ellenberger