For mountain-bike company crankbrothers, creativity is all about curating the right kind of workspace. WORDS: Matt Skinner, PHOTOGRAPHY: Ye Rin Mok
The crankbrothers’ Laguna Beach, CA, design studio is unassuming from the outside and it would be easy to drive by and miss it. There are no gaudy flashing lights or huge signs announcing its presence – just a dark blue awning with a subtle white logo above the door. Yet when you step over the threshold this anonymity is replaced by a space that is personal, invigorating, and conducive to collaboration and creation. There are aluminum Apple iMacs, lockers, and fixtures softened by wooden pieces of furniture, beams and flooring. There is a bike ‘tree’ - an objet d’art
that doubles as storage for staffer’s bikes – and soft couches are arranged throughout. Walk into the meeting room and a ping pong table functions as a formal meeting table.
“Crankbrothers loves design,” explains the company’s marketing manager Amanda Schaper, “but we are also very down to earth and playful, and it’s important that our workspace says the same.” Fittingly, the interior colour palette is a soft balance of white, light blue and silver, with dark grey flooring, dark brown wood and brushed metal. “It's a clear reflection of the products we design; simple, clean, beautiful,” adds Amanda.
“We are now officially in the age of design for the bicycle,” explains crankbrothers co-partner Andrew Herrick. “This was our hypothesis back in 2002. We believed that the bicycle would enter the age of design – when major technical innovation would be [replaced by] incremental advances in great, evolving industrial design. This is exactly where we thought it would be and we are in exactly the right spot.”
Nicknamed the ‘Apple’ of the bike industry, crankbrothers has carved a distinctive niche for itself with an ambitious mission statement “to change the appearance of the bike”. Its 'iPod' has been the innovative 'Egg Beater' – a light minimal pedal made simply from a spindle wrapped by a four-sided, spring-loaded retention bar – and, in keeping with its Silicon Valley counterpart, it sees itself as “a design company that makes mountain bike components”.
Over fourteen years, crankbrothers has grown from the humble part-time project of two design partners and enthusiastic cyclists, Carl Winefordner and Frank Hermansen, into one of the most distinctive cycle component and design brands in the world, enjoying nine years of consistent annual growth along the way. Their influence may be far-reaching, but their home has always been in the Pacific Ocean-hugging town of Laguna Beach, where the vast majority of their thirty-strong workforce are based. “Our location is extremely important to us,” says Amanda. “Laguna Beach is an artistic community, and that helps us to really nurture the creativity that allows us to thrive.”
The crankbrothers’ studio space is implicit in facilitating their innovative work. “Being happy in our office allows us to be creative individuals,” says Amanda. “We’re inspired by our space and surroundings rather than limited by them.” With the ocean in one direction – just 200m away – and the trail-riddled hills in another, crankbrothers is centered in the perfect artisan and outdoors idyll. To compliment this, their design studio embraces ideas of space and light with an open-plan layout that should “encourage interaction and teamwork”.
But their out-of-the-box thinking has had its teething problems. When Winefordner and Hermansen were moonlighting with component design in the early 2000s, touting their telescopic Speedlever tyre lever around the industry, they were repeatedly told, “Thanks, but no thanks.” Winefordner explains: “They all declined, basically telling us that it would never work, and if it did, it would never sell.” It must have been satisfying, then, that after launching the Egg Beater pedal, crankbrothers’ business exploded? “We were drowning in success,” admits Winefordner.
Of course, it would be gratuitous to say that crankbrothers has had a flawless hit-rate. Like many mavericks, soaring highs have come with some crashing lows – the most high-profile of which, a stainless steel and aluminium-backed box-section Cobalt crankset, was just too ambitious for the manufacturing capability four years ago. In practise, the two separate halves of the crank arms de-bonded, rendering the cranks useless. “We have had plenty of swings and misses,” admits Andrew, “but that's because we've taken a lot of swings. We are not interested in making products like everyone else does.”
It is not surprising, then, that many critics of crankbrothers have accused it of prioritising form over function. But crankbrothers is a company that polarises opinion – fans are devout, and critics are staunch detractors. “When we hit, we are complimented,” continues Andrew. “When we miss, we are criticised. In both cases, we can’t tie too much emotion to it. I can promise that we will continue to push new designs and styles and I expect we will continue to receive some criticism as a result.”
Currently, crankbrothers has eighty-six products in its range including pedals, hydration packs, bars, stems, headsets, and more. Its new range of premium multi-tools – the Pixl, Pica, and Pica+ – uses a unique indexing feature to click the tools into place. “Simple is far more difficult to achieve than complicated,” explains Winefordner. “The best products are simple, yet solve all the important problems. Average products solve the problems, but are complicated in some way. […] Simplicity is harder to achieve than complexity.” Indeed, as Leonardo da Vinci once wrote, “Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication,” and few other two-wheeled brands seem to embrace that philosophy as thoroughly as crankbrothers.
“We have a very unique collection of individuals and we all have a mutual respect and appreciation for what each other brings to the table,” says Amanda. “It makes for a very creative and inviting atmosphere, where people are encouraged to share ideas and make suggestions on how we can be doing things better — because we can always be doing things better.” Co-partner Andrew certainly agrees, adding: “Creative people are more creative when they are happy and this means, in our building, riding bikes and designing products.”
Although it's at the forefront of its market, crankbrothers is not afraid to take risks. A radical approach that continues to be nurtured, perhaps, by their bespoke nest? “The very clean atmosphere allows us to be open rather than cluttering our thoughts with loud décor,” agrees Amanda. “An office located in a large, bland business park wouldn’t allow us to think outside the box and come up with the innovative ideas that define crankbrothers.” Read POC MAG