What kind of motorcycles do you get when the head of design at your company used to design furniture at an architecture firm and spent a year living off the grid in India?
If you're Confederate Motorcycles, and that designer is Ed Jacobs, you get the X132 Hellcat -- a street bike stripped down to its pure functional essence. "We don't cover anything. That structure is real, it's not wallpaper," Jacobs tells Co.Design. "You really see the truth of what's going on, not a candy coating."
"My philosophy is: Listen to what the product wants to be."
"I have a universal design philosophy that I've believed in for years: to listen to what the product wants to be," Jacobs says. "Don't force your aesthetic on it. Allow the intent of the structure to be the aesthetic." That philosophy informs the Hellcat's design, which is built around a solid aluminum engine case with elements of the frame bolted directly onto it. "Usually the frame is a cradle for the engine," Jacobs explains. "Here you bolt the frame to the front and rear of the engine and the whole thing is a working structure."
The result looks like something out of The Dark Knight, all black and gray and pure, fearsome function, but "it's not meant to look 'techno' or futuristic," Jacobs adds. "It's meant for the parts to speak to each other -- that's what makes it look that way." The Hellcat grew out of a Confederate R&D project called Renovatio, which reimagined the motorcycle engine case as a "utilitarian structural foundation, a superstrong base that you could bolt anything onto it you wanted -- create any bike you wanted." With the Hellcat, that experiment became a reality. "It allows you to come up with new bikes that are different from each other, but with the same heart," Jacobs says.
The same philosophy might also be a metaphor for Jacobs' path as a designer himself. A longtime motorcycle enthusiast, he studied architecture and industrial design at Pratt, which led him to work at an architecture firm designing furniture and fixtures. He also spent 11 months traveling in India. "I had my first motorcycle there," he says. "I lived in a mud and stone house on the side of a mountain, and relied on my bike for everything." When an opportunity arose to join Confederate, he jumped at it. "My philosophy is that I can adapt to work anywhere," he says, "but I appreciated that the thing I felt so strongly about in the field of design, the longevity and quality of a product, was shared at Confederate and that really drew me to the company."
Jacobs joined Confederate six months before Hurricane Katrina "crushed the factory to the ground"; the company relocated to Alabama, and Jacobs with it. The company's philosophy of "heirloom" design -- parts and bikes that are created to last as long as their owners, if not longer -- is not surprising given that history. "We don't cast parts, we machine them out of solid aluminum," Jacobs says. "The molecular structure of cast parts is much more brittle. Ours are much tougher."
"If you walk the walk, that'll translate into your work."
But tough doesn't mean uncomfortable -- or (hopefully) unaffordable. The Hellcat won't be anywhere as inexpensive as an off-the-rack Honda, but Jacobs says that Confederate plans to expand production beyond its usual "small batch" runs to reduce cost and make the Hellcat more accessible. (For now, the custom bikes run upwards of $80,000.) "It's a street bike, it's very light and very fast," he says. "The seating position is very comfortable, the geometry is very functional -- it's not arbitrary to the motorcycle's needs. That erases the whole chopper genre, which has nothing to do with ergonomics. Here, the mechanics are the aesthetics. You engage with it physically and mentally and even spiritually."
When I asked him about influences, he didn't rattle off a laundry list of other designers and motorheads, but instead cited Lao Tzu. "Inspiration is a matter of lifestyle," he says. "It's about trying not to be a hypocrite. If you walk the walk, that'll translate into your work. I'm just a child with so much to learn."