by Zohra KhanJun 05, 2023
Gianluca Gimini, an American-Italian designer based in Bologna, took up an intriguing project called ‘Velocipedia’. The project explored the fundamentals of what perceptions of designers and non-designers could be. This exploration made him document the thoughts of people with diverse sensibilities who were asked to draw their visions of a bicycle. After collecting a staggering 376 sketches, with the youngest participant being a three-year-old and the oldest an 88-year-old, what Gimini had in hand was a collection of 376 unique designs of a traditional bicycle. Although not all of them were functionally proven concepts - one sketch had the chain attached to the front wheel while one had a chain attached to both - this portfolio included extraordinary, wild, new and at times brilliant inventions.
Gimini went further to create 3D versions and then physical prototypes of these bicycles that were then displayed at the exhibition Velocipedia IRL, now part of the permanent collection at the Museum of Old and New Art (MONA) in Tasmania, Australia.
Here, STIR talks to Gimini on what made him conduct this experiment and then convert it into the project ‘Velocipedia’ where he rendered some error-driven bicycle drawings.
Meghna Mehta (MM): What inspired you to take up a project around bicycles?
Gianluca Gimini (GG): I would say it just ‘happened’ in a way. Here is the full story:
It all started 10 years ago, inside a bar in Bologna where I was chatting with a friend. We were talking about school time memories and I recalled this very embarrassing moment - a classmate was being questioned by our technical education teacher. He was not doing well and was on the verge of tears at a certain point, so the teacher tried to help him out by asking him to describe his bicycle. The poor kid panicked and couldn’t even remember if the driving wheel was the front or the rear one. My friend laughed at this story and said that anyone who has ridden a bike must know how it’s made. Then he tried drawing one on a napkin and failed miserably. That’s the day I started collecting bike drawings.
At some point though, I understood I was gathering some great material for what is called a crowd-sourced project. Many projects of this kind are aimed at making the exact average of the collected materials, but I thought each and every one of the bikes I was receiving had unique features that needed to be brought to attention rather than merged together into a single design.
MM: Why do you think this is going to be an important commodity in the future of travel?
GG: We are too many on this earth, living unhealthy lives and polluting way more than the ecosystems can tolerate. If I were to give you a more ‘Italian’ point of view, we are finding out that progress is not necessarily good under every aspect. Some things we were doing better 70 years ago when we were forced by poverty and lack of technical means. I am thinking more of commute than actual travel. I don’t see myself travelling for business on a bike or even taking my family on vacation by bicycle.
MM: Could you take us through the creative process of this project?
GG: Velocipedia began as a collection and I really didn’t have a purpose for doing it. I did understand I was gathering material of great value.
It would not be easy to say what’s the thinking behind my projects. I like them to be meaningful, that’s for sure. I know I tend to work by association of ideas and that my love for puns always comes up. My coin box for BVR and Ciro Minimo for Helios Automazioni would be two good examples of how play on words influence my designs.
MM: What made you want to reach out to people for their version of a bicycle?
GG: It was that friend inside the bar in Bologna. He was the second person I saw attempting to draw a bike in my life….and the second one to fail. That’s 100 per cent. So, I felt the urge to investigate and collect drawings from as many people as possible.
MM: What were your learnings from the entire process, right from collecting the sketches to the 3D version you created?
GG: I learned that almost anyone can produce beautiful designs. Not beautiful and functional because not everyone is a trained designer, but still very beautiful! So many people think of themselves as un-creative and…well, probably they are. Also, many people who think of themselves as creative are actually just repeating schemes and styles they see from others. Cognitive science has demonstrated how our brain can trick us into thinking we know how a bicycle is made even if we don’t. I think the 'Velocipedia' experiment demonstrates that we can trick the brain and highlight how bringing ourselves outside the comfort zone into a field we don’t master can be very imaginative and even visionary. The purpose of the renderings is just to underline how beautiful the sketches are. All the creativity in this project lies in the sketches.
What this task has enabled many participants to be is imaginative. Something we all were as children before we learned the schemes (and styles and clichés) to repeat. We still have the chance to imagine things we don’t know. We just need to know what we don’t know and focus on it with the limitations of a child. Without Google, without cheating, or taking shortcuts to solutions offered by someone else.
So summarising, my message is: we can all be imaginative if we allow ourselves to be it.
MM: All the designs appear to be converted into physical bicycles. Do you think these designs may be implemented in real life? If yes, what materials may be used to build these bicycles?
GG:Oh, absolutely! As a matter of fact, in 2019, five of these designs became actual bikes. I had been hoping for this to happen since I published my work in 2016, and it finally happened three years later, thanks to MONA, the Museum of Old and New Art in Tasmania. I call this long-desired extension to the project Velocipedia IRL. It includes all 12 renderings from the Velocipedia image series on sale here, reproductions of 109 selected sketches and five life size dysfunctional bicycle sculptures made from custom metal frames and commercial bicycle parts.
MM: What kind of challenges did you face while working on this project?
GG: One challenge was convincing strangers to step out of their comfort zone and draw a bicycle for me. I discovered that there are certain settings that make people more keen to accept the challenge. For example, inside the Venice Biennale, I found many people who were enthusiastic about collaborating in an art project. In other places people would shy away much more.
Then there was a technical challenge in 2009. I had just graduated and did not have the technical ability to produce photo-real images yet. That’s why it took me so long. Only in 2016 I felt I had become good enough to start working on this series of images.
MM: The project forms an interesting bank of designs for bicycles - what is the way forward from here?
GG: For who sees the project, the way forward should be to see how flaws can be beautiful. To understand how most things, like these sketches, work better as a group than as individuals.
For me the way forward was to transform the idea behind 'Velocipedia' in a format, in 2017 I did a similar thing for my city’s most important museum. The project is called Monumenta. I asked fellow citizens to draw by memory our most famous monument. Unlike with the bike (which I could easily draw by memory even back in 2009), I failed badly with this one. Instead of renderings this time I made physical models of these wrong, new and imaginative monuments.
For bike manufacturers and the biking community, there is only one innovative and functional design, Massimo’s (one of the 12 that were chosen for the renderings) but I am quite sure it’s not commercially interesting. It uses too much metal and is probably too stiff. So, the ‘take-home message’ should be the rule I live by as a designer: focus on the process!
- Number of collected bicycles' sketches: 376
- Youngest participant: 3-year-old
- Oldest participant: 88-year-old
- Different nationalities of participants: 7
- Bicycles facing left: 75%
- Bicycles facing right: 25%
- Some diversities are gender driven. Nearly 90 per cent of drawings in which the chain is attached to the front wheel (or both to the front and the rear) were made by females. On the other hand, while men generally tend to place the chain correctly, they are keen to over-complicate the frame when they realise they are not drawing it correctly.
- The most unintelligible drawing has also the most unintelligible handwriting. It was made by a doctor.
Project DetailsName of the project: Velocipedia and Velocipedia IRL
Location: Tasmania, Australia
Time taken from conception to construction: 10 years
Designer: Gianluca Gimini
Design team: A few hundreds of random people
Manufacturer: Fikas bikes who manufactured the 5 bikes
Collaborator: Museum of New and Old Arts, Tasmania, Australia in Hobarts who financed Velocipedia IRL