As more manufacturers are abandoning the petrol-powered engine, one innovator is taking it a step further. We paid a visit to the Swedish motorcycle entrepreneur Taras Kravtchouk, founder of Tarform, in his workshop in Brooklyn, New York.
Words & Photography AGATON STRÖM
In an industrial workspace in the Brooklyn Navy Yard, surrounded by computers and engine parts, Taras Kravtchouk, the 36-year old co-founder of Tarform, is busy at work creating ’The Motorcycle Of Tomorrow’.
Kravtchouk cites a photograph taken on 5th Avenue in New York City on Easter morning in 1900. The photograph shows an avenue crowded with horse-drawn carriages and one single car. Another photograph, taken thirteen years later, shows the same street bumper to bumper with car traffic and a single lonely horse. One can only imagine the rapid transformation the city went through in that decade. From the clattering sound of hooves and the smell of manure to loud machines and toxic exhaust fumes in thirteen short years. It was during this automotive revolution a hundred years ago that a young Swedish immigrant from Brooklyn started the first American motorcycle company. Oscar Hedstrom’s Indian Motocycle Manufacturing Company became, through ingenuity, craftsmanship and design, the biggest motorcycle company in the world.
Now a century later, Kravtchouk, another young Swedish immigrant in Brooklyn, hopes to make a dent in mobility, and just like Hedstrom before him, he is combining craftsmanship and design with a passion for two-wheelers. The vision for Tarform is to meet the demands of a new generation of consumers concerned with their carbon footprint as much as with beauty and design. Kravtchouk’s bikes are not only zero-emission, but partially compostable and recyclable. Sourced from organic ingredients you could put in a smoothie, Tarform uses renewable materials derived from plants like hemp, algae and cornstarch.
”Can we move away from petroleum-based plastics and look basically at the entire life cycle of the way we’re building products today?”
— Our current system is broken, Kravtchouk says with a serious look on his face and quickly glances down at his desk.
— Consider this phone for example. We use it for a while and then it ends up in a landfill somewhere. That’s the broken system. I am not coming at this from the perspective of an activist but we want to ask the questions and encourage others to do the same. Why is this or that product not made with sustainable materials? Why is it not recyclable?
Rethinking the transportation sector is quickly becoming an urgent moral imperative as the effects of global warming are felt all over the world. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the transportation sector was responsible for 28 per cent of all greenhouse gas emissions in 2018. The majority of carbon emissions happens during the production of vehicles and not through tailpipe emissions. Kravtchouk explains that roughly only 20 % of emissions occur during its use.
— Tesla came in and completely changed the landscape of the automotive industry. What is a car for the 21st century? How do they use technology? So I felt, well, here’s a big challenge. Why not do a motorbike that is not just zero emissions, but also rethink how we make them, what kind of materials go into this? Can we move away from toxic materials? Can we move away from petroleum-based plastics and look basically at the entire life cycle of the way we’re building products today?
The inception of Tarform began with a passion for motorcycles that Kravtchouk discovered in his early twenties back in Sweden. Years later, he ran a design studio in New York developing software and working in mobile development. As an antidote to his day job, where he spent long hours in front of a screen, he began spending nights and weekends in a garage building and restoring vintage motorcycles he found in Upstate New York. The hands-on experience of building physical things led to the opening of ’Craftsman Avenue’, a maker space where artists and craftspeople lead hands-on workshops for creatives in the digital world. Classes are offered in everything from woodworking, welding, jewellery design and custom knife building.
During this time he received an invitation from the British fashion company Belstaff to build a bike for one of their stores. He had thirty days to restore a rusted barn-find old into a showpiece and this led him further into custom bike building. It was in this intersection of old school, timeless craftsmanship, fashion, and technology that Tarform was born.
— About thirty per cent of our clients are first-time riders and the rest are not exactly the stereotypical macho biker, Kravtchouk says and adds: The clientele we’re attracting are Tesla people with an interest in design and cleantech. Art and aesthetic over gear.
Talking about Tarform without mentioning Tesla is about as easy as nailing jelly to a tree. And although the comparison is an easy temptation with the evangelistic start-up lingo and Silicone Valley backing, Tarform comes across as not only a motor company but also a purveyor of a larger, grand idealistic idea packaged on top of two wheels to inspire more meaningful consumption. After all, for many people, a car is a necessity they depend on for work, grocery shopping and picking up their kids from school in all kinds of weather. A motorcycle conjures up independence, freedom and the adventure of the open road. You don’t need a motorcycle. You want a motorcycle.
”The name Tarform is a contraction of two Swedish words that translates into ’take shape.’”
A motorcycle may not be a vehicle of necessity. A car or a train could probably get you where you need to go. A watch is also not a necessity. Your phone can do many things and the least of them is telling you what time it is. But where a phone becomes obsolete with each passing software update and model release, a well-made watch can be passed down through generations and become more meaningful to each new owner.
Kravtchouk admits that the current electrification of vehicles is still evolving and the future will improve the technology, so the challenge in living up to the company’s ethos is to build something that is not just relevant today but that will last into the future. Tarform takes upcoming advances in battery technology into consideration and constructs the bikes with a modular design to allow for the recyclable batteries to be upgraded as new innovations arise. The name Tarform is a contraction of two Swedish words that translates into ’take shape’. Kravtchouk came up with the name as a kid and he knew then that he wanted to use it for something big one day.
The idea is that with a well-designed, aesthetically timeless exterior and modular concept, the bike will always be in a state of shaping itself according to the needs of the driver. The bike will never be obsolete because it’s never really complete.
The quest for a more sustainable vehicle has resulted in the use of plant-sourced materials. The side panels are made from a flax seed weave and toxic paint and primers are replaced by algae. The seats are made with vegan leather from plant fibres.
If these materials conjure up images of tie-dye and vegans in sandals at the farmers’ market, Tarform’s creations are firmly grounded in biker culture and influenced by Kravtchouk’s Scandinavian design.
— Scandinavia is known for its sober aesthetic. When I spent a lot of time in various design fields, obviously I was striving to create something that is as minimal as possible. Now then, the question is what is minimal and where are you striving? I grew up doing a lot of martial arts. So it was very influenced by the Zen side of aesthetics as well, which is actually very similar to Scandinavian minimalism. It’s about removing everything that’s not essential and, in a way, that’s how nature operates. There’s no abundance that is not needed in nature. So if you want to create something that is as complex as a motorcycle, could you distil it into just a few simple lines?
Sustainability is an inherent goal in this approach to design. If the bikes look cool today — great — but they still have to look cool tomorrow. The style needs to transcend and ride above shifting fashions to stand the test of time in the eyes of the beholder.
The bikes have an obvious nod to vintage designs but are refreshingly free of nostalgia. The 3d printed logo on the ”tank” has the durable look and feel of cast iron.
— The design inspiration came from vehicles in mid-century that seemed to preserve some sort of timelessness to them. So if we look at Porsche Portia’s in the fifties, you know, Jaguars, there’s something about the shape that doesn’t seem to be outdated. And I think it’s just when people spend a little bit more dedication and time on refining a shape or form, and I felt we could bring some of those elements that seem to be timeless. And the cleaner alignments, the cleaner the silhouette of something is, the more it will sort of endure the test of time. And so that became one of the foundations.
The design has garnered international attention and the bike has been on view at Peterson Automotive in Los Angeles and is currently on display at the Gallery of Modern Art in Brisbane.
Much of the experience of riding a motorcycle involves all your senses. You feel the vibrations and you listen to the engine to gauge when you need to shift gears. The sound of the bike can also tell you how fast you are going and what rpm you are humming along to. An electric vehicle is nearly silent. Tarform saw this as an opportunity to create something new.
They teamed up with Swedish composer and sound engineer Adam Nordén who came up with the solution of turning the bike into an instrument. An acoustic resonator picks up the sound of the motor. The result is a low-pitch hum. In idle mode, it’s almost reminiscent of a cat purring or as if the bike is breathing calmly while reminding you of the powers available once you pull the throttle. The sound amplifies as the bike accelerates.
Another safety feature, long available in cars, is a blind spot detector they developed. It is mounted at the tail of the bike and delivers haptic feedback, which means that the seat vibrates whenever there is something in your blind spot. They are also at work on a front-facing camera that uses computer vision to scan the road ahead and communicate to the driver when you need to slow down and add space between the vehicle in front of you.
These features are not designed to take away from the experience and make the rider reliant on the technology, Kravtchouk is quick to point out:
— At the end of the day, you know, riding a motorbike, you’re owning the experience and we don’t want the bike to ride for you, but simply to just enhance what’s already there.
It has taken Tarform almost five years to get to this point. During the process, the company has run into a number of challenges and problems that Kravtchouk never anticipated. He cites his naivety as a driving force. If you attempt something difficult perhaps it’s best to not know just how difficult it actually will be.
Their hard work and naive drive are paying off, Tarform will begin initial deliveries this autumn.
Kravtchouk has a tendency to answer questions with even more questions.
— What is sustainability? Is it just a nice page on your website, or do you truly implement these strategies? What does an ethical supply chain mean? Can you build your products locally? Can you support local communities instead of outsourcing something to the other side of the world and then being completely disconnected from that process?
And it is this quest — for solutions and answers to problems — that has driven every innovation. For every new answer, there are more questions and Tarform seems to be thinking about them all.