Our connection with Sparse, a design company built around improving urban cycling through design, begins with — as most things do around here — a poster. Specifically, the poster that Chicago designer Jerome Daksiewicz created for our 2011 Interbike show. This one.
Jerome struck us as exactly the type of person we love to have in our shows: An incredibly talented designer who loves bikes, but works at a job that has nothing to do with cycling. His information design work blew us away, too.
So when he first told us about Sparse — a collaboration with fellow aesthetic brainiacs Colin Owen and Haley Toelle — we were excited because he was teaming up with smart people to channel his talent into something he was passionate about. And that was before we saw what they were up to…
Two years ago, a group of bike-obsessed Bay Area designers sat around a table in a dark office over take-out to discuss bike projects they’d been independently dreaming up. Trans fats were consumed, ideas were exchanged and a conversation around the role of design in addressing the challenges of urban cycling was underway. That conversation was the beginning of Sparse.
“We’re still having the conversation,” says Sparse CEO Colin Owen. “We’re still questioning, testing, refining, and above all, riding. We live and think about this stuff every day. We’re continuing to build a team capable of responding to and leading this conversation.”
But don’t think Sparse is just talk. The company is based on the belief that more bicycles make for better cities. And they’re hell-bent on getting more people riding by putting their collective design know-how and riding experience to work.
Over the past two years, Sparse has grown from a small group of bike-obsessed designers in the Bay Area to a slightly larger group of bike-obsessed designers in the Bay Area, LA, Seattle and Chicago.
“We’re all designers,” said Owen. “Everyone. Our CEO, our VP, our CFO. This common background affords a culture of pretty deep questioning. It’s far, far easier to design the nicer version of the thing that’s already out there. It’s more troublesome to take yourself out of that routine and really look at the underlying scenario.”
The company just wrapped up a Kickstarter fundraising campaign that blew by their stated goal of $45,000, raising over $66,000. While only the first release of a much larger effort, it’s fitting that Sparse’s product debut — a set of front and rear bike lights — addresses, both practically and aesthetically, a common urban cycling conundrum through intelligent design.
“When I got a first look at the lights at Interbike, it took pretty much every ounce of self-control I had not to just grab them and run,” said ARTCRANK founder Charles Youel. “Bicycles are beautiful machines that strike a perfect balance between form and function. But bike lights have been stuck in this ugly, utilitarian mode for decades — all function, no form. Sparse is proof that a highly functional object can be thoughtfully and beautifully designed.”
On their own, the die-cast aluminum lights are sleek. On a bike, they’re pure stealth. In contrast to traditional mounting lights, the Sparse lights become part of the bike itself — cutting out the aesthetic bulk many urban riders have grown tired of. They get you noticed when the lights are on, and practically melt into the frame when they’re off.
The front light replaces a spacer and sits beneath the stem, making it a more than adequate pain in the ass for a would-be thief. And rather than seventeen different flash settings, your options are on, blink and off. So, while you might be high maintenance, your headlight isn’t. Less time pressing buttons means more time keeping a lookout for the things lights are meant to protect you from in the first place.
The rear light slips on and clamps down on your seat post — blending with the contours of your ride, and again, requiring tools and more time than most thieves are willing to spend. LED’s throw light super-wide, keeping the rider visible. And better yet, the light automatically activates as soon as you start riding and shuts off after the bike’s been still for 60 seconds. It does its job and you can completely forget about it.
After successfully launching the lights, Sparse has plans for a full line of soft goods ready for winter 2013. Pending our survival of this Minnesota winter, we know what we’ll be wearing next year.
– Patrick Murphy