Coming to New York by way of Paris and Brazil, former fashion industry publicist Lorenzo Martone had a revelation while moving into his West Village apartment — while tastes and technology had evolved, the staid Dutch-style commuter bike had remained more or less unchanged. Combining contemporary design sensibilities with updated components, Martone brought his eponymous line of urban bikes from idea to reality within less than a year. BikeNYC spoke with Martone on the inspiration behind his designs, starting a DIY bike business and his favorite places to ride.
What sparked your passion for bikes?
Bikes have been a part of my life since I was a child, and I’ve had a longstanding appreciation for all the benefits of biking – you can exercise while getting from A to B, it saved me money through my student days and there’s the sustainability factor — it’s incredible that there are so many benefits from a relatively simple technology and design. So to me it’s always been second nature. The spark for me was more in design. I loved my commuter bike, but had a vision for a contemporary, design-inspired take on this classic style — no pun intended, I wasn’t setting out to reinvent the wheel, I just thought it could use an update (laughs).
Your background is in fashion. Have you taken design inspiration from that industry?
Actually, one of my biggest design inspirations comes from the films of (Spanish director) Pedro Almadovar. Red is my favorite color, and I love the way he uses it in his movies. Jeff Koons’ monochrome balloon animals have also been an inspiration, as well as (Belgian fashion house) Margiela, who have done an incredible job of designing all white products, from fashion to furniture. I’ve also been inspired by websites like fab.com, who infuse products for everyday life with designer sensibilities. But the main reason I decided to go with the monochrome design is because that was my vision from the beginning (laughs). Which brings up a funny anecdote —I felt really strongly about doing an all white bike, but got a lot of resistance. People in the bike industry felt it would be too much like the ghost bikes you see around New York City; it was also a struggle to get the factory I was working with to produce white tires for fear they’d get dirty right away and no one would buy them. So granted, now I’m sold out of white bikes (laughs)! You definitely have to put some extra care into owning an all white bike, but it creates a special relationship between the owner and their bike.
My favorite bike is the red one, but I have 4 colors at the home. My idea is that every year around April we release a new set of colors and accessories, with that I’m trying to mimic the fashion industry as much as I can. We launched this year with 5 and are going to come next year with new colors.
What kind of responses do you get riding a Martone bike?
People in America are so open, New Yorkers especially. They’ll stop and ask me where (the bike) is from, if they can take pictures, whether it’s custom — they’re great conversation starters. Some people say that the bikes seem very modern, and to others they’re nostalgic. That ‘s one great thing about design — it’s very open to interpretation.
Beside their unique aesthetic, what sets Martone apart from other upright bikes aimed at an urban market?
I wanted the bikes to be technologically innovative too. I first encountered the SRAM Duomatic system (an auto-shifting 2-speed hub) while visiting Asia. I decided to use that on every bike, making it part of the experience. There was a trend in the 60s towards automatic hubs, but there’s a huge generational gap, and most people don’t know about them (many bike mechanics included). I think it grounds us in being urban bike users. We’re not racing, or climbing huge hills, but commuting to work, dressed up and don’t want to get our hands dirty. In that sense, I’ve incorporated the design and mechanical simplicity of a fixed gear bike, without the intimidation factor or learning curve. I also wanted to include baskets as a standard feature on all bikes, I think everyone in the city should have a basket – it lets you carry everything from groceries to dogs. I’ve been getting really good feedback on the technical features, from women especially, and the experience of riding a Martone bike always make people crack a smile.
Traditionally, bike companies have been divided into two camps: custom frame builders and large, mass-market producers. In recent years, a number of NYC-based bike entrepreneurs have combined the DIY ethos of the artisan frame makers with the production approach of much larger companies. What’s your take on this trend?
Even a few years ago I would’ve never risked going to China or Taiwan with the idea of creating a business — it seemed so far away, and only accessible to people who had connections and spoke the language. Now it’s a lot more democratic, the world is more flat and horizontal. I felt that since my idea didn’t fall into big guys’ concepts that I had to do it myself. I also took it as a spiritual, crazy life experience – I thought, “I’m going to go backpack around Asia, see the manufacturers and get this done.” In 2013, Asia is more accessible, so if you have a vision, you can go there and do it, though you’ll probably have some Lost in Translation moments, like I did (laughs).
How has the growth of bike share programs affected your business?
I don’t have numbers, but anecdotally, I think it’s helping bikes as a whole be more present in the mind of New Yorkers. I’m not worried about Citi Bike taking business away from me – I see it as a rising tide lifting all bikes.
You’ve been a big supporter of Transportation Alternatives’ advocacy work. What changes do you think could most benefit NYC bikers?
I’d like to see more protected bike lanes, and more being done to prevent bike theft. In London, there’s a lot less bike theft. In New York the amount of bikes being stolen is scary, and that fear of theft can stop people from investing money in their bike. While walking my dog a few weeks ago, I came across a bike theft in progress near the intersection of 7th Avenue and 13th St. People were all around, and it was obvious what was going on, but no one was doing anything to intervene. I called the police and they showed up within minutes, and went after the guys. The NYPD doesn’t always take bike theft seriously, but regardless, New Yorkers should look out for one another, and do something if they see theft happening.
Have any advice for fledgling NYC bike riders?
Be confident on the road. Wear a helmet and comfortable, light fabric and bright colors (you don’t need any special clothing to ride).
The Westside Highway is a great place to ride, especially while the sun is setting, and I love biking in the West Village around 10th, 11th and 12thstreets — there’s some incredible architecture, great cafés and ice cream shops in that area, and I often go out of my way just to ride there.