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Design as an attitude

By 1 March 2019 No Comments

In December 2018 Antonio Colombo was invited in Hong Kong for the Asian most important design event, the Business of Design Week.
During the “Reinventing Brands Through Design” panel, Colombo speech “Design is an attitude” tells comething more about Cinelli Vision and Mission.

Here below the full speech.

What I have just shown you is a short film made by some young friends of Cinelli which in a quite naïve and simple way nevertheless sums up the core values behind our participation in the cycling world.

Scrolling on the screen behind me now, and during my speech, are 400 images of a life – my life – that has continuously intertwined design, art and technology for over 40 years…

Now to begin with I must be clear: I am not a designer. I am not an artist, nor am I an engineer. I am an industrialist, but a reluctant one. At the age of 23, when my father passed away, obliging me to take over his steel tubing business, my plan had been to move to Ireland and open a bed and breakfast dedicated to fly fishing!

Obliged to take over the family business I immediately began searching for an outlet for the expression of my creative impulses within the factory. I found this outlet in the bicycle. In particular in Columbus, the department of the factory dedicated to bicycle tubing and soon after, through Cinelli, a client of Columbus, which I acquired between 1977 and 1978.

I approached the world of design not as a graduate of design school or an architect or an engineer. I approached it as somebody who had grown up in a very heavy 1970s political climate of terrorism, kidnappings, strikes and so on. My aesthetic education came through rock music and the counter culture in general. The things you felt, heard and saw in music and underground cinema and literature in the late 60s and 1970s were totally disconnected to the daily life of a Milanese boy. They represented the aesthetic of the future. And it was through them that I discovered colour and more importantly the idea of design not as a project but as an ethics, a way of communicating new attitudes of living through aesthetics.

Because of this approach I was able to see in the bicycle an object which was functionally perfect but which had an unexpressed, utopian, social potential.

The bicycle, I said to myself, is already a technically perfect object of design. My job should be to intervene on the details and the uses of the bicycle rather than the object itself. I had to understand the possibilities better.

I had to create the ground for different ATTITUDES TOWARDS THE BIKE.

Of course my anxiety was that by producing bikes we were only producing bikes, producing bike tubes we were only producing tubes. A personal discovery which helped me overcome this anxiety was the “secret bauhaus” history of my father’s tubing company. In the 1930s my father’s tubing factory had purchased the license for and produced and marketed tubular furniture designed by Marcel Breuer and great designers of the period like Aalto, Terragni, Bottoni and many others. Growing up I had know nothing of this because it was believed that rationalism, because of its proximity to early fascism, it had to be hidden. But its discovery in a dusty back room of the factory was a revelation. All of a sudden I had the confidence that producing tubes didn’t mean just producing tubes, it could also mean culture! I think this is an important and exciting lesson for any industrialist!

And it was with this confidence and attitude that, for example, my Cinelli became the first company in Europe to manufacture, market and sell Mountain Bikes. MTB represented an entirely new, free-spirited, creative and experimental way to approach the bicycle and was the natural way for me to set Cinelli on its new path.

Throughout this period but still today my not being either a competitive cyclist or a designer allowed my company to embrace and to be embraced by other worlds. Not being a competitive cyclist I was able to dedicate time to other cultural pursuits. Not being a designer I was not only product-driven in my approach to design. I was open to the strong cultural ferment of Milan and in particular the “non-rigorous” “non-functionalist” approach of groups such as Alchimia and Memphis and in particular Alessandro Mendini. FROM THIS I DISCOVERED THAT THE RIGHT APPROACH FOR ME AND FOR THE NEW IS NOT TO SAY WHY BUT INSTEAD WHY NOT?

This approach led to the design of objects that had never existed before in cycling such as the world’s first EVA handlebar ribbon, Original Cork Ribbon, the Spinaci handlebar extensions as well as highly technological pieces such as the one-piece RAM carbon fiber handlebar-stem and the world’s most victorious Olympic bike model, the Laser.

My relationship with engineers and with the technological aspect of design has always taken the form of a provocation. The provocation is usually an idea for a new attitude towards the bike and this provocation acts as a stimulus to the development of new methods of construction and guarantees the technological competitiveness of the brand at the highest level.

Throughout this period of the 80s and 90s Cinelli thus became known as the only cycling company in the world to produce alternative cycling values. We collaborated with artists, with famous graphic designers, we created objects that had never previously existed etc.

But it was only in the early 2000s that my vision of what the bicycle could be became a global reality. In the early 2000s, to put it very simply, youth culture became interested in the bicycle for the second time (after MTB). This time at a global level and connecting it for the first time with nascent “street culture”. Up until that point the bicycle had remained an instrument used for sports or for transport. The adoption of the bicycle by young culture is in itself an act of design. It transformed the bicycle into a social phenomenon and in doing this transformed the very function of the bicycle. All of a sudden the racing bicycle was not just a racing bicycle, it was a urban fixed gear bike, a cargo bike, a travel bike, a gravel bike.

In particular the urban fixed gear bike, a brakeless track bike used in the city and the most forceful catalyst of youth culture’s interest in cycling, is the most perfect example of Cinelli’s design strategy. Cinelli’s continuous research into social and cultural developments around the bike allowed it to understand the trend not just first but also most comprehensively, as a cultural phenomenon, and to develop products such as the famous MASH and Vigorelli ranges which truly responded at a TECHNICAL LEVEL to new SOCIAL DEMANDS.

When we started working on developing a new generation of fixed gear bikes which unlike the original track bikes were designed specifically for urban use people would ask me, particularly in Italy, what is the point of a bike without brakes? And my answer was “to reinvent the brake”! And together with passionate riders from all over the world we did not just reinvent the way of braking when riding in the city, we also reinvented the handling characteristics and geometry of urban bicycles.

Thanks to this constant cultural research and the long work of Cinelli throughout the 1980s and 1990s to show that the bicycle could contain many more emotions than just those of sport and transport, these new young cyclists of the 2000s have adopted Cinelli as their mascot and love brand.

For example the Cinelli cycling cap became a global symbol of alternative values, selling over 100 000 pieces a year, not counting all the bootlegs.

The cycling cap is in fact a good example of what I mean when I say I haven’t invented anything. The cycling cap is nothing new. It has existed for more than 100 years. But something that Cinelli does when it presents to you the cap make it so people are particularly attracted to it. I call this “human technology”! And we don’t just apply this to our high performance technological achievements, such as the lightest steel tubes in the world, but to every part of the company. In other words: design is the company!

Design in youth culture in general but also in particular in the new cycling of youth culture means everything that lies between the product and the final consumer. It is a project that regards also perception.

In fact today for Cinelli design means we are happy to make another rider happy.


We ask ourselves how to make another rider happy. And this can mean many things. We work across the board, making riders happy through participation (on social media for example), through increasing the safety of our products, through creating a sense of community, through aesthetic refinement, through helping young people find new ways to use their bicycles…
What I just said had been visually summed up by the Pedalor, a sculpture (created by Alessandra Cusatelli) inspired by the Modulor, a modern reinterpretation of Da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man made by Le Corbusier in 1955 as a study of human proportions according to new housing needs. A bicycle has been placed inside Pedalor’s hand and held vigorously above his head, like people used to do in the first critical masses in 1992. When the product becomes a symbol and goes along with a gesture, that’s where design comes true and almost becomes Art.