In 1952, Jack O`Neill invented the wetsuit so that he could stay in the


In 1952, Jack O`Neill invented the wetsuit so that he could stay in the
In 1952, Jack O‘Neill invented the wetsuit so that he could stay in
the water longer. His simple ambition led to an extraordinary future,
both for himself and the surfing world as a whole.
The Working Artisans‘ Club is the next chapter of that story –
a celebration of modern makers, artisans and innovative craftfolk
that will culminate in exhibitions in Germany and London.
For exhibition details see
The Bamboo
Bicycle Club
Hackney LONDON
In a quiet corner of Hackney
Wick, Ian McMillan and James
Marr are helping Londoners
customise their rides.
Ian McMillan and James Marr are enjoying an alfresco
beer at a Thameside pub offering views across the river. As
hardened mountain men, ski instructor Ian and snowboarder
James crave fresh air in the big smoke. Their preference for
the outdoors goes way back, all the way to New York where
they met eight years ago on a break from their native UK,
volunteering at a camp for homeless kids doing “practical
and handyman type stuff ”.
Off-piste, twenty-six-year-old Ian is a civil engineer while
TEXT Amrita Riat
James, who’s about to turn twenty-eight, worked as a product
designer in the wind turbine industry. Having undertaken
all kinds of adventures together – from crossing Vietnam to
road-tripping from New York to Mexico in a VW stick-shift
– the pair have had plenty of time to bicker and bond. On
cue, Ian teases James about his impending birthday: “He’s
one year closer to the old man inside.”
It’s this shared path that has led them to where they are
today: co-founders of Bamboo Bicycle Club, a Hackney Wickbased project that, over the course of a weekend workshop,
provides people with the knowledge and tools they need to
make customised bikes out of minimalist bamboo. There
are even home-build kits and how-to guides, developed in
response to demand from European fans and the pair’s
own desire to pass on their skills. “Ian and I are both firm
believers that you should pick something up and give it a go,
because you’ll surprise yourself,” says James.
But why bamboo? “I think it’s about accessibility,” he
adds. An intuitive woodworker, James seizes any opportunity
to extoll the virtues of handmade craft. He recalls a recent
anecdote, when a reviewer at Cyclist Magazine first laid eyes
on an ‘amateur’ hand-built bamboo bike: “He thought it was
beautiful and I said to him, ‘Look, you’ve got loads of bikes
in your magazine made by manufacturers who’ve spent fifty
years developing them with hundreds of millions pounds of
budget, but that guy who just dropped off his bike that you
saw – that’s the only bike he’s ever built.”
Frustrated by the performance of aluminium tubes on
London’s long and treacherous commuter routes, James
started experimenting with bamboo circa 2011, after seeing
it used in bike-builds on the other side of the Atlantic. With
a beer in one hand and tyre lever in the other, the duo spent
a year and a half dedicating their weekends to perfecting
the bamboo ride, rooting out manufacturing problems with
handmade iteration after handmade iteration, so there’d
be no kinks that needed ironing out during live service. “I
loved my bike to pieces, but still went out every night trying
to break it, throwing it down flights of stairs as a test. That
was slightly stressful,” remembers James.
This can-do attitude is still at the heart of Bamboo Bicycle
Club, but technology also plays a part. Design blueprints,
from choppers to belt drives to electric bikes, are generated
on a computer which customises the chosen style to the
geometry of the rider, simulating the final frame so that any
major build issues are bypassed.
In two short years, Bamboo Bicycle Club evolved from a
side-project based out of their parents’ garages to an established business. To date, 160 people have passed through
their doors and left with the ability to build their own bikes.
“When you build a bike, you see every spec that goes
into it, you think about it and you invest in it,” says James.
“Then when you ride it, it’s so much more fulfilling because
it was all your concept. When we first rode our bikes we just
couldn't stop smiling, we were just giggling, like, ‘This is
funny – we’ve kind of just built this.”
“Anyone can learn to craft it,” enthuses Ian. “And when
it comes to the bikes themselves, the ride quality is just
Unlike fleeting bike trends, bamboo rides aren’t just for
city hipsters, says Ian; country folk and suburbanites count
for seventy per cent of workshop attendees. And word is
rapidly spreading. “People here in London are more like,
‘Look mate, there’s one of them bamboo bikes,’ rather than,
‘Wow, what on earth is that?’” explains Ian. “They already
know about them and are much more suited to doing things
themselves. There are great maker cultures developing
around the globe and I believe we’ve had a spell of that
here. We’re part of a generation that spends its life sitting
at a table in front of a computer, but one where cycling is
huge and ‘Do It Yourself ’ is huge, too.”
Lost in thought, James considers the psychology behind
this social shift. “Now, instead of building cars, we work in
the call centres that sell them. There’s no gratification from
producing like there was when we were manufacturing or
even working in little shops that needed window dressing. I
think that’s one thing that the economic crash has brought
out in us – people want to get out from behind their desks
and shape things with a knife.”
A Made in Britain brand, Bamboo Bicycle Club follows
a niche manufacturing business model that prioritises
knowledge-sharing over profit-making retail, charging for
workshops and kits rather than pre-made products. Fuelled
by a desire to inspire, James is currently developing original
parts (he’s in the final stages of a new tube innovation) and
a more accessible kit so that schools can get involved, too.
“At the end of the day it’s about facilitating and stretching
the vision,” he says. “Can you build a bike out of bamboo?
Can you build it in a weekend? Can you put two top tubes on
your bike? That’s what I love – provoking people to think that
something’s possible and then, hopefully, they’re provoked
to take a different attitude to things in the rest of their lives
as well. We’re in a unique position to do that.”
From schoolboys working in butcher shops to psychology
professors, everyone that walks into a Bamboo Bicycle Club
workshop rides back out with something to call their own.
“It’s gone from our story of how we began it to everyone
else’s own story,” says James
“People want
to get out from
behind their
desks and shape
things with
a k n i f e .”