8 Things
Jens Martin Skibsted of Biomega

As the founder and creative director of Biomega, Copenhagen’s Jens Martin Skibsted is one of the most respected names in bicycle design. But to hear him tell the story of how he got there, you’d think he’d done everything in his power to avoid that fate. After believing for most of his life that he would grow up to be a poet, he decided to study film in Paris — “writing sci-fi movies about giant ants” — then dropped it altogether and took up philosophy for six years. It was during that time that he took a trip to Barcelona with his girlfriend and was struck by the random conviction that he ought to start a company making city bicycles. “I started drawing bikes, but tried to forget about it because I have so many ideas, and I can’t do everything,” recalls Skibsted, who as a child filled notepads with inventions like chopsticks connected at one end, many of which he says exist now. “But this was one idea I couldn’t really forget. I thought ok, maybe I’ll buy a nice designer bike instead, but I couldn’t find any. So I figured I’d just read about them, but 20 years ago there were no books on bike design that weren’t about technology or sports.” Ultimately, once he had resolved to launch Biomega in 1998, he made the most potentially self-defeating move of all: Approaching Marc Newson — as a philosophy student with no company and no experience — to design his first model.

Luckily, he found a kind of kindred spirit in Newson, who shared his love for the designs of the ’60s, when optimism about the future gave rise to boundless experimentation with new materials and organic forms. “But the main thing that caught his attention was that I’d looked into a host of technologies that were sitting there waiting to be exploited by the bike industry, and no one had done it,” says Skibsted, who figured that building a city bike with superior construction and design was the only way to get people to give up their cars. “He liked that there was a vision behind it, and we signed a deal a few weeks later.” Newson came up with an idea that had never been tried before — making a continuous aluminum body using a superplastic forming technique, bonded with Formula 1 epoxy — and while shepherding the bike through a long, arduous production process, Skibsted felt he’d learned enough about the technology side to try one of his own. With the Copenhagen model, he officially became a designer himself. “In many ways I’m very humble, but sometimes I get these ideas that I’m good at something,” he says. “I was sure I could do it, and I wasn’t really doubting myself. My first design was driven by the idea of integration; I knew it was possible to make a shaft-driven bike, and otherwise it was very Scandinavian, very essential in style.”

Skibsted recently joined with the Danish architect Bjarke Ingels and product designer Lars Holme Larsen to form the supergroup Kibisi, whose portfolio includes Aiaiai headphones, chairs for Hay, and the bikes Biomega designs and releases under its Puma license. The firm also developed a Transformer-style flying car concept for Terrafugia, which touches on Skibsted’s wider interest in transportation innovation, an area in which he’s also considered a thought leader. The bikes are a small part of his ecological agenda that begins with improving the earth, and ends with colonizing other planets. “Realistically, we’d love to do an electric car,” he says. “But my big dream would be to make a zeppelin or an airship, which would take a few days to cross the Atlantic but could be made C02 neutral faster than any other means of transport. Of course if we were able to do a space ship, that would be even crazier than the zeppelin.” For other insights into Skibsted’s fertile mind, check out the slideshow here, which reveals some of his longstanding inspirations.

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Two-wheelers: As an inspiration, two-wheelers seem sort of obvious for a guy who started a bicycle company. But long before he was interested in bikes, Skibsted was obsessed with motorcycles. “As a kid I read every magazine on them I could find. My parents would get so tired of me asking yet another motorcycle question, like how many cylinders does a Husqvarna trial bike have? Imagine a kid that keeps asking annoying questions like that — they’d get seriosuly angry with me. My favorites were made by Egli (pictured), a Swiss company that took other brands like Kawasaki and revamped them to look good and go faster. I never had a motorcyle, but I had a Puch 3-speed moped. By the time I became old enough to have a motorcycle, I thoguht they were too dangerous.”

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Two-wheelers: “My first bicycle was an ordinary ‘world champion’ bike, a Danish stand-up brand, and then I got a racing handlebar. In high school I started going to shops and picking the parts, then having them assembled for me. One of the mechanics thought I was so weird — I was basically building a mountain bike before they made mountain bikes — then I went down to the same bike shop a few years later, and he had liked my design so much he’d made a lot of them and sold them. But if you knew me back then you wouldn’t have said, ‘This guy’s going to start a bike company.’ Many Danes were into bikes because it’s the main means of transport in Copenhagen.” Above: A modified version of Skibsted's first bike design for Biomega, named after his hometown.

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Two-wheelers: “Once I designed the Copenhagen and it turned out to be popular, Puma asked me to design something for them as well, and then suddenly I had a design career. I followed four principles: One is that all of the parts should be integrated so the bike seems like one object. Another is that it looks iconic. It also needs to be easy to maintain, because you don’t expect to go to the car mechanic every other day, but with a bike that’s what you sometimes end up doing. The last is useability — if you transfer the paradigm of bikes to cars, it would be like having two stick shifts, and we would never accept that. Apart from those ideas, Biomega is run like an Italian furniture company: This is what I believe the world needs, and this is how it’s gonna be.”

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’60s design: “In those days you had great designers like Joe Columbo or Verner Panton, and then this whole iconography around it that you could see in A Clockwork Orange or 2001: A Space Odyssey. There was this incredible optimism at the time, an incredible freedom, where we thought anything could be had or could be made. I think it’s a good attitude. Of course it doesn’t mean you need to be as wasteful as we were back then, but the optimism I liked. After the oil crisis in '73, you had to make everything from wood again instead of plastic; every time there’s a crisis you go back to old, solid values and become much less explorative.” Above: The Ribbon chair by Pierre Paulin

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'60s design: “I really like the the Panton chair, and the huge fiberglass table by Joe Columbo. It’s an aesthetic that influenced me, but in combination with my Nordic roots. A lot of people view Scandinavian design as being minimalistic, but I don’t think that’s fair. If you look at the work of Jacobsen and some of the Swedish industrial designers, like Sixten Sason, there’s a whole strain of Scandinavian design that’s been a bit forgotten. We made pretty organic things — it wasn’t always about minimalistic wood and metal.” Above: Verner Panton’s eponymous chair

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’60s design: “When I started Biomega I wanted someone optimistic to design the bikes. Marc Newson was also into Space Odyssey and sci-fi. His designs were a revival of the period from ’68 to ’72, these years filled with a belief in progression and that technology could help us do things differently.” Above: Newson’s superformed, glow-in-the-dark MN02 Bonanza bike

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Sci-fi: “The world’s first big-budget sci-fi movie was the 1918 Danish film Himmelskibet, or Trip to Mars. It's about life on Mars — I actually do believe in terraforming Mars — with everyone dressed like WWI pilots. It was also influenced by the war in its focus on pacifism; the Martians teach the humans how to live without war. When Tivoli was looking to name a rollercoaster recently, I convinced them it would be cool to name it after this movie.”

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Sci-fi: "Also, the spaceship in Trip to Mars (pictured) looks like an airship. Generally, the influences that come from my childhood are taken from movies like Star Wars and James Bond, where Bond has a submarine car. Once I started in film school I was more into art-house films, and how you could make a sci-fi movie more artsy, the way Jean-Luc Godard did with Alphaville. La Jetée makes me nostalgic because I grew up in Paris, so it’s a looking back movie, while Flash Gordon works the other way around — I saw it as a kid and imagined a great future.”

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Tupilaks: "A tupilak is a craft object from Greenland — Inuit art, but linked to shamanism — that’s made from the ivory of sea elephants or narwhals. My grandfather died before I was born, and my dad died just after in a car crash, so when my grandmother got remarried to a man named Frede, he became the father figure in my life. He’d been a pioneer in Greenland for 30 years and he was also a hunter, so he was very old-school: If he caught one of his sons without a knife on them, they’d risk getting beat up, because no man should be caught without a knife. I’d been to Greenland with him, and he had these tupilaks, and he gave me one of them, which meant a lot to me.”

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Tupilaks: “One day I had my portrait taken for a think tank, and was told by the photographer to bring something really dear to me. I brought a tupilak, and when I got it back it was broken. I was vocal about it, to say the least, and so the Danish painter Lars Ravn, who was also in the think tank, painted this for me because he felt sorry that I lost it.”

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Philosophy: “I only read non-fiction books, because there are so many things I want to know, and I don’t have the time for novels. Out of those, only a minority are philosophy books, but most of the books I read do have a philosophical dimension. I studied philosophy at the Sorbonne for a year, then in Denmark for five more years. I thought I was going to apply it, that I would write books — which I’ve done, but not about philosophy. I only practice philosohy in one specific way: I developed an ethical theory after school, and based on that theory a company was created called ethicaleconomy.com, which I’m still linked to as one of the founding owners. I developed half of the ideas and got an equity share.” Above: Skibsted’s shelf full of philosophy books

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Foodieism: “Recently I’ve teamed up with the local chef Bo Lindegaard, and we’ve been doing these experiments about how to reinvent traditional Danish open-face sandwiches. (People in Denmark aren’t as romantic about Danish things, so my fascination with open-face sandwiches must be because I’ve spent so much time abroad.) We try to use my knowledge of design and Bo’s perspective on food as an art installation to experiment with making something new. Each time we’ve tried we’ve had an audience of creative people, so we always get feedback, but we still don’t quite know what to do with it.”

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Kaleidoscopes: “In Barcelona in 1992, where I also had the bicycle epiphany, I saw a very nice kaleidoscope at the Antonio Tapies museum. I thought it was nice but was like, why would I buy a kaleidoscope? Then I went to another store and saw another kaleidoscope, and decided I had to collect them, so I bought both. There’s something very analogue about kaleidoscopes, and something also a little bit private and secretive. It’s only your own little vision when you look inside. I have around 100 of them now. Back when I wanted to be a poet, there was a poet and critic in Copenhagen named Poul Borum who was something of a mentor to me, and when he died, I found out that he also had a kaleidoscope collection. I was so annoyed I didn’t know before, because I’d never met another guy who had one.”

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Lions: “When I was young my grandmother bought me a huge lion stuffed animal, and the two Danish princes visiting my family in Switzerland at the time also got the same. I don’t know what they did with theirs, but to me, it meant a lot. I had constant nightmares at the time, and the lion protected me. Nowadays I have an actual lion in my home (pictured), which my father killed on a hunt with my mother’s family. His family were diplomats in Africa, and because of all this I used the lion as the logo for my company Skibsted Ideation. Now it turns out that my fiancée is from Zimbabwe, and her father’s side came from a warrior tribe, and their totem animal was also a lion. The lion is a symbol for courage, and I like to think that throughout my endeavors, it’s one of the values that's followed me as well.”