Since choosing Dresden as a venue for the first ever European Bespoked show we’ve been back and forth between Margate and Dresden a number of times, and each visit has made us more sure of Dresden as ideal for this year’s show. Having a climate controlled, mostly glass venue in a kind of interesting building, surrounded by 20k of forest trails is part of the draw for sure, but increasingly, for us, the community in Dresden has become the town’s best feature. On the drive back from Kolektif in berlin to visit the Sour factory just outside Dresden, in a surprisingly comfortable jeep, I caught glimpses of conversation with Christophe about living in East Germany, and growing up in East Germany. The idea of being cut off from the west felt uncanny in its familiarity, as the UK becomes increasingly cut off from Europe, and while the internet means that it is unlikely that all communication will ever stop being global, crossing borders has become a thing, especially with bicycles.
Fragments of this fairly recent history crept into conversations with other builders subtly here and there too:
“Why are you doing a show that far east, people don’t spend money in East Germany.”
It wasn’t until Flo, of Fern told me about the current exhibition of Textima track bikes at the Chemnitz transport museum, and tried to persuade me to exhibit some of the work of historical east German builders, some of whom are still working today, that my interest in the history of bicycles in east Germany was piqued. After not that much digging and with Flo’s support as well as the help of sometimes Bespoked employees Sean Fisher of “the ladder research observatory” and Bennet Janz of Ballern and Suicycle, I set out to meet the makers of some of the most eccentric bikes ever raced around a velodrome. There were a few independent builders in DDR but almost all of them either learned to build or worked at the Diamant factory in Chemnitz, so looking into the history of bicycle manufacture in the region hosting the show, Diamant and Chemnitz became common themes.
We got in touch with Diamant, who along with the Radavist agreed to support a short film about the history of builders in DDR which will be screened for the first time at Bespoked, focusing specifically on the two remaining builders of the Textima bikes raced by DDR track athletes during the cold war. I rented a car, threw a camera in the back and drove to Germany, via Eindhoven where I stopped to pick up Sean who joined in on a whim. Our first stop was Sour bikes, to shoot their new factory just outside of Dresden. I’d visited the factory before and had for sure noticed the weird rustbelt America vibes in the small towns bordering the Czech Republic. There was something about the architecture that seemed a weird mashup between soviet industrial complexes and American logging towns, but more than that there was also a good number of American flags, American denim shops, ford broncos and weirdest of all Corsica memorabilia everywhere. Both of which sit culturally as relics from the fall of the wall.
There’s an uncomfortable dichotomy in the new states of Germany, formerly DDR, in people’s interpretations of the effects of the end of the cold war, and in their interpretations of left and right wing politics, which having lived under a truly left wing government needs to be taken with a pinch of salt by people living in increasingly right wing western countries. The fall of the wall was bittersweet for citizens of the “worker state”. It is a complex history which I tried to pick apart through the anecdotes of people I spent time with.
“Over there is the world leader in accordion manufacture.”
Christophe pointed out one of the luxuriously large windows that line the Sour factory.
“This town used to be an accordion making town, there were 60 accordion factories over there on that hill and each one used to employ 250 people. Now there’s just this one that employs 7 people and it’s still the world leader.”
Wow. Why is that?
“Because there was never really any demand for that many accordions. The factories were run by the state to keep people employed, and after the fall of the wall we stopped exporting accordions to east bloc countries. I guess not so many people play the accordion?”
From a western standpoint it’s easy to think that DDR was not notably producing quality goods, but that just isn’t the case. There was a significant highly advanced industry in DDR with the priority being on futuristic and innovative products, but only for export and outwards facing activities. For example, RFT reference speakers were among the finest available, used in professional music production studios all over the world, however the same factory would produce significantly inferior and much cheaper speakers for domestic use. The same was true for a number of other products, for example Zeiss Jena were producing super high end lenses with Zeiss optical formulas for export, while the cameras featured in Tashen’s DDR handbuch are designs such as the plastic Certo SL101, and pentagon k16 both made in Dresden, as they were the models most in use by people in east Germany. Being cut off from the west meant that while steel was in short supply, other materials like fiberglass and aluminum alloys were cheap and plentiful, leading to inexpensive lightweight utilitarian vehicles like the Trabant or “trappy”.
The Textima and Diamant branded bikes raced by DDR athletes were groundbreaking in many ways, they were wind tunnel tested, and made from tube sets ovalized to become more aero in house, on machines made from scrap parts and handshakes after hours. Illicitly acquired Campagnolo cranksets were either milled or filed by had to become more aerodynamically shaped, and experimental geometries ran rampant, from lowepros to track bikes with 20” wheels so that teams could draught each other more closely. They ran 9mm wide rims on necessarily hand stitched tubular tyres, laced with homemade bladed spokes, all outbound on Campagnolo hubs, filed so that the bladed spokes could slot through the holes. They were designed meticulously with scientific fervor as were the concoctions of steroids and stimulants tragically short-lived athletes were augmented with. It was an exciting time and even more exciting environment to be building in, where in a pre-UCI world anything was on the cards, as long as you had the network to make it happen.
All industry in DDR was run by the state, who, operating outside of capitalism, used productivity as a metric for progress. Factories would receive funding from the state to replace broken equipment and tooling each year, so as a result, almost uniformly all factories would lose or break 25% of their tooling each year. Employees would be instructed to each take an amount of tools home with them as they’d have to mysteriously disappear from the factory having ”broken”. In order for the factory’s budget for tooling to remain the same in the coming year. Breaking less tools would be an improvement in productivity; however, it would also mean a reduced budget for the following year so there was no financial incentive to maintain tools and equipment. In fact, maintaining a poor record was beneficial for both factories and workers. In addition to this, there was an embargo on western goods entering the DDR, making it impossible to get certain goods critical to the manufacture of high-end racing bicycles.
We visited Heir Kohliht, who began as an apprentice frame builder working for Wagner Junior at the Diamant factory in Chemnitz which was at the time known as “Karl-Marx-Stadt”. During his formative years, when he fell in love with frame building, he was only allowed to shape spot welded lugs, with a 4mm needle file as part of a production line, where he learned actual frame building skills by watching the senior welder at the time without ever being allowed torch time himself. When Junior Wagner fell out with the welder at the time, Heir Kohliht stepped up as the new production line welder without ever having been allowed to use the torch or furnace (forks were soldered in a furnace!). Because of his frame building skills and skills as a mechanic he was invited to accompany the National Track team to Mexico, by the General secretory of both Diamant and the Leipzig sports club which he was a member. Eventually employed by the sewing machine factory “Textima”, along with heir Rinkowski who invented a method by which roll round spokes to became bladed and pioneering in experimental ultra short wheelbase, filet brazed track frames, which looked like nothing made anywhere else in the world and went on to win several medals in world championships.
Heir Kohliht resides in his small self-built home, just outside of the center of Leipzig nestled amongst a sea of picturesque allotments. He told us stories of smuggling in reams of aramid fiber yarns to make tyres, because whole tyres wouldn’t fit in the small briefcase used to sneak them into DDR. Pioneering builders’ hands were forced into technical excellence and a tacit understanding of each part of their craft, building not only frames but weaving fabrics from which to stitch tubular tyres, and sand-casting copies of Campagnolo mechs when the real thing couldn’t be smuggled in. They built machines from reclaimed sewing machines and tooling made secretly after hours in engineering workshops. In trying to represent DDR as a forward thinking and technologically advanced state, builders had to set up illegal smuggling networks to get what they needed to continue to innovate. The states suspicion towards its citizens forced them into “criminal activities”, which caused further suspicion, which in turn birthed the STAZI, the world’s largest and most prolific government agency dedicated to surveillance of their own citizens to date. The STAZI was so prolific that a huge percentage of ordinary citizens were employed by the government agency to spy on their friends, co-workers and even spouses.
After the fall of the wall citizens of DDR were allowed access to their STAZI files, where they had access to information on who was spying on them and what information they supplied to the state. Industry in east Germany ground to a halt, as manufacturing facilities that had grown up in communism, were no longer able to supply goods to other eastern bloc countries. While they had operated to always increase productivity, they now had to deal with supply according to demand. West German companies saw east German manufacturers as direct competition and bought a number of profitable brands only to liquidate them, all of which left thousands of skilled German workers in the new states unemployed. This is the dichotomy of DDR- the trauma inflicted on citizens through a suspicious Government agency paying friends and families to spy on each other, strict embargos leading to shortages of certain goods and materials required for progress and strict suppression of media and information. The workers and farmers state meant that the children of educated people were denied education, while the children of workers and farmers were educated in an ill-advised bid to address intellectual inequality. On the other hand, although business transactions often relied on extensive illegal networks of winks and handshakes, a huge portion of east German workers were employed, many of which even now feel that through the rose tinted lens of nostalgia, if you could ignore the spies, and being cut off, had better and more comfortable lives. In practice I’m not sure that this is the case. There are muddled cultural appropriations in the rust belt towns of Germany, with modern right-wing America. I saw a number of “don’t tread on me” stickers, and images of guns accompanied by the slogan “yee yee” which while they have a sinister right-wing context in the US are intertwined in east Germany with an obsession with Asterix and Obelix memorabilia, and with them a weird link to corsica. I feel that rather than the Neoliberal agenda these disparate bits of tat inspire in the US, in former DDR working class towns they simply refer to a mood of “we were fine doing our own thing before you and modernity came meddling with us”. From an outsider’s point of view, the only point of view I have, it’s a misguided ideal based on communist industry working at some point and the internet not existing. In truth no one plays the accordion, and no amount of independence can bring accordion manufacture back to the outskirts of Dresden.
The region is littered with bright, brutalist, modern concrete factories lying dormant. Plentiful and affordable space, and an aging but highly skilled workforce, with an incredible work ethic, and a NEED to manufacture. From an outsider’s perspective it’s the perfect nest for newly hatched light industry and creativity to grow and flourish. A potential manufacturing hotbed for the European bicycle industry, especially during increasingly turbulent times, during which geopolitics and environmental issues increasingly threaten far eastern supply chains. In this way small independent manufacturers in the new states of former east Germany are pioneering a positive change, once again occupying industrial units and employing the dormant workforce, once again bringing skills and industry to the area to build a thriving local community. It’s this community which makes us super excited about bringing Bespoked to central Europe for our first exhibition outside of the UK. Hearing heir Kohliht and heir Pytell’s stories about the how difficult it was to make necessary transactions with the western world, while also seeing builders like Fern, and Drust, Vetra and Acto5 as well as small companies like Sour and Beast components build on their legacy has been a huge inspiration that we can’t wait to share with visitors to this year’s show.