Meeting Harry Harrison – frame builder and one third of Field Cycles – it’s a question of identity that sparks off our conversation. ‘My real name’s Matthew,’ he adds after explaining how they took their company name from the city of Sheffield where it’s based. ‘But everyone’s always called me Harry.’ And since establishing the business a little over 5 years ago with partners Tom (design) and John (paint), a waiting list of up to 18 months is testament to their reputation for producing builds that beautifully marry form and function.
It seems apt for a company that fabricates frames primarily from steel that they chose to base themselves in a city famed for a history of metal work but Harry explains that more practical considerations come to play other than simply a respect for engineering heritage. ‘From a making point of view, there’s pockets of knowledge around this city that shouldn’t be underestimated. Like the engineering firm that cut our drop-outs. You walk into the workshop and there’s 600 years of combined experience.’
Employed as part of a team of set builders after leaving art school, a collaborative work process is something that Harry understands well and by nature prefers. ‘We’d build a set and it would look alright and then the lighting technicians would do their thing and it would look even better. Then you’d add the actors in character and the photographer would frame it with their camera. At every stage, each person who’d spent the time and effort to get really good at their particular ability or trade kind of added value.’
Asked how these past experiences led to a successful career fabricating frames, Harry reflects on a friendship with John that was forged during their time in Bristol studying art. ‘We both had careers in the art world but got a bit disillusioned. As we used to cycle hundreds of miles a week, I decided to learn how to build frames and he chose to learn how to paint before Tom came on board with his design skills.’
Acknowledging the importance of this partnership, Harry is quick to point out that it’s the focus on specialisms that he believes is the secret to the company’s success. ‘There’s a value,’ he explains, ‘in choosing your role and mastering that process or skill before working with other people who all have their own specialities. I just really enjoy collaborating with people that are better at something than I am.’
With a natural inclination to want to build any object that catches his eye, Harry nevertheless admits to a degree of procrastination in this attitude to practical matters. ‘The way I approach stuff,’ Harry states, ‘is that I want to make something perfect and I start a long way from the finished object.’ Speaking of his first workshop that he built in his back garden, the fact that it was constructed to build frames made it, in Harry’s eyes, part of the process. ‘And then I practised and practised; understanding that you need a really healthy attitude to mistakes. You can read all you want about something but you learn by doing.’
Quoting from the company website, where it describes their build process as ‘an exploration of craft, aesthetics and function’, I ask if these considerations have equal weighting? Whether Harry feels form and function are balanced in the end product? ‘I’ve built so many frames,’ he observes, ‘that I know from experience what works and what doesn’t. And I feel the secret is to make something that’s unique and beautiful.’ At this, he pauses for a moment before continuing. ‘When we set up the business, we knew we didn’t want to be men in sheds. We make things with a nod to tradition but we’re not looking for nostalgia.’
With such a considered aesthetic – Field produce one-off custom builds but with recognisably complex paint designs – I venture that I’m still not quite sure where they draw the line between craft and art. ‘When I was still working in the art world my work was all about function,’ Harry reflects. ‘I’d make door handles for galleries and was kind of confused by the idea that the work they showed could be covered in bubble wrap and stored in a warehouse. I was much more interested in things being used and worn out; having that imprint of use. So my idea of art is probably very different from another person’s but we use the same parts of our brains when we’re designing, building and painting our bikes. And then there’s the sheer satisfaction of making something that has amazing functionality together with such a beautiful form.’
‘Everything we’ve done,’ Harry continues, ‘we’ve always taken our time. That’s partly our personalities but I think it’s also a northern thing. We never wanted to shout about what we did. We wanted to make a product we’re completely satisfied with and put it out there and let it speak for itself. I know the learning curve of building a top quality frame and sometimes you see people who are still on the steep bit and they’re shouting about what they’re doing. To me, that’s the wrong way to do it. I think you’re better off keeping your head down until your learning curve is flattening out. In the same way that Tom had his own learning curve in designing from a flat to a three dimensional object and John with his paint that’s laid done with such painstaking precision. But that’s the beauty of the way we work; each having our own level of expertise. You might think you’d be able to do a similar job but I’ve not put in my 10,000 hours on design and paint. And you’ve only got so many 10,000 hours in you and I used mine on learning to build frames.’
For such an intensive build process, to commission a project from the customer’s perspective requires a corresponding commitment in terms of the financial outlay and the wait for their bike to be delivered. I wonder whether these individuals find their own way to Field’s door or are attracted by marketing strategies? At this, Harry is keen to point out that they take a very different approach to bike building. ‘We’ve found that we don’t really need to engage in marketing. People are buying the latest bikes from the big manufacturers almost, in a sense, knowing that in one or two years they’ll be buying again. With us – maybe because they’ve collaborated so closely on its design and they’ve waited while it’s been built and painted – people seem to relax in the ownership of their bike.’
The perceived wisdom that, for the performance driven rider, carbon frames are more appropriate than steel is another consideration I put to Harry. Though no Luddite and actively interested in new technological developments, he still chooses to argue that for the majority of riders the differences in materials have a minimal effect. ‘What we find,’ he points out, ‘is that many of our customers also have a high end carbon bike in addition to the one we’ve built for them. And with modern day measuring tools like Strava, they’re generally faster on the bike they feel better on and they prefer to ride our bike because it’s been made to fit their personal measurements and to ride how they want it to ride.’
Questioning whether this solely accounts for their decision to commission a steel bike, Harry adds: ‘With carbon frames, there’s an element of the designers all being stuck behind the same software and, in a similar way that modern car designs are optimised for certain performance gains, the consequence is that a lot of modern bikes look increasingly the same. Steel lends itself to one-off fabrication and, time after time, we see that customers want the beauty of the bicycle to match the beauty of its function.’
Following a design consultation with Tom, Harry currently builds all the frames before passing them over to John for paint. Acknowledging that this process naturally imposes limitations in terms of the quantity of builds that Field Cycles can achieve, they are considering limited production runs. Still made in house but by other fabricators, this would reduce waiting times and still allow Harry to concentrate on one-off builds but raises other issues. ‘People like us, we’re kind of control freaks,’ he points out. ‘Completely obsessed with quality control and the second we can’t maintain that level then it’s game over.’
Understanding that these ideas for fabrication are still very much in the planning stage, it’s arguably the paint in particular that identifies a bike as a Field build. Referring to the complex nature of the designs that inform, to a certain extent, a house style, Harry appreciates how he’s personally influenced this narrative. ‘When I was still working in the art world, a lot of my research focused on dazzle camouflage. I’m still fascinated by the work of the vorticists; the way an object is affected by movement. And Tom’s interpreted these influences really well.’ Asked whether there are limits to his involvement in the design aspect of a build, Harry smiles before stating, ‘Sometimes, I’ll suggest something and Tom will tell me we’re not doing that. He’s slightly more polite to customers.’
As the stunning paint effects are created without resorting to decals and stickers, I return once again to my question regarding a build’s lead time and the patience it requires on the part of the customer in waiting for their bike to be completed ready for the hand-over. ‘It’s only my own theory,’ Harry explains, ‘but I believe the time it takes to purchase something can directly affect how you feel about that item and how much you value it. And they’re happy to wait to own their bike. It’s unique and they enjoy the feeling of collaboration that’s involved in the build process. Interestingly, I equate the waiting time for one of our builds to the cycle of replacing a bike an individual might have purchased from one of the big manufacturers with a new model.’
And not only do customers receive their dream bike but also entry into an unofficial but exclusive club that has formed between Field owners. As there’s a healthy market for these bikes in countries such as Japan, Germany and the US, then this ‘club’ has an international flavour with UK orders typically being full builds and framesets the most common purchase from clients overseas.
This following, I suggest, seems a long way (both geographically and culturally) from Field’s roots in Sheffield and I ask whether their business model could still exist if relocated to another city? ‘I’m probably biased but I can’t comprehend why people would do what we do in somewhere like London when you consider London prices. And building steel bikes where stainless steel was invented means this is the perfect city for the material we use and Sheffield still globally carries a lot of weight in places like Japan in terms of that heritage.’
‘That’s the beauty of being a small scale manufacturer,’ Harry continues, ‘I get exhausted by the constant changing in standards and we can adopt them based on whether we think they’re an improvement or not; rather than simply keeping up with the latest trends. Progress and development of what we do is important but we don’t simply follow fashion for fashion’s sake.’
Accepting that, alongside his established role within the company as frame fabricator, there’s the associated pressures of running a business; Harry initially underestimated how administratively involved this can be. ‘Me, Tom and John; we run a business but we’re not businessmen so an uninterrupted day in the workshop is a joy. And ultimately, it all comes down to a love of making. The bike’s already a beautiful object and we just want to celebrate that. Our customers come to us because they want what we do. And that’s what, to their taste, we give them.’
It strikes me that throughout our conversation, Harry rarely talks in the first person; choosing instead to use ‘we’ rather than ‘I’ when describing the build process and the company’s plans for the future. Couple this with a belief that it’s best to keep your head down until you have a product that can speak for itself and you have an approach to bike building that focuses purely on the ‘making’ and leaves ego at the workshop door. Just as Harry likes it.
For more information visit Field Cycles
All images with kind permission of Tom Smith