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Erik Spiekermann, typographer and designer, speaks to David Sharp for Survey in Berlin.
You’re famous for your fonts but also for being a cycling fanatic.
I seem to be tagged as the designer who is in to bikes, and I’ve always been in to bikes. I’ve had bikes all my life. Sadly all my best bikes have been stolen. I had a great bike I bought off a racing driver in the mid-1990s in Palo Alto [San Francisco], and that lasted a long time until it was nicked a couple of years ago. It was a really nice Rivendell. I’d just fitted it with gleaming new high-end Shimano gears. Whoever nicked it must’ve known what they were stealing.
More recently I got measured up for two bikes, one in San Francisco – a Waterford – and one in Berlin. They’re both fitted with mid-range components. I don’t do high-end like Shimano anymore because I’m not a racer – I’m 66-years-old!
Your permanent base is Berlin but you also have offices in San Francisco and London. What is your preferred choice of city bike?
I like riding a single speed in Berlin and in London also. I have a Gary Fisher in London, which is not very good. It’s already started rattling. I can hear the cranks. It’s a 48×19. Here in Berlin I ride 48×16. I like standing up. I checked the speedo recently and I was going at an average speed of 35km/h, which would normally mean I was hammering it. But once you get going there’s no slippage, no gear change, you’re always in the right gear. I had no idea how fast I was going on that bike! My single speed in London is a little lighter so I start spinning which I don’t enjoy.
Do you prefer to cycle in the city rather than the country?
The city. I’m not a natural country rider. I don’t have a high cadence, which is a mistake because I’m getting too old to push a big gear. I prefer the resistance of a higher gear. I have some friends who live in the south of Germany and they’re used to the mountains and they get up any hill without standing up, whereas I really struggle.
It depends on the terrain you grew up with?
Yes, and I grew up in the north of Germany which is much flatter.
What is your favourite of all the bikes you’ve ever had?
I had a Daccordi here in Berlin, which I had forever and ever. It was semi-fitted for me; only the frame was made to fit properly. It was stripped down, incredibly light with garish Italian graphics on a nice blue frame. It was the first bike I got that had gear shifters on the top of the handlebars. This was around 1991 or ’92. When I was building my house in Berlin, around six years ago, there were no doors on the garage downstairs. I ran back into the house on an errand, left the bike there for 10 minutes and someone stole it. That still hurts. When I see a blue bike I think of it. And if I ever saw the arsehole that nicked it he would get fucking clobbered! I am not a violent person but that is just not done – you do not steal precious bikes from people. It’s nothing to do with the money; it’s all about the attachment.
Now I carry my bikes on my shoulder and take them inside wherever I go. You don’t leave a $10,000 racing bike tied up outside with a flimsy chain. My current favourite of the bikes I have is a bright orange Patelli vintage racer.
Have you ever considered designing a bicycle-inspired font? Are there any you admire?
I’d love to! Most of the fonts used on bikes are pretty nasty and are unfortunately often designed by engineers, not actual font designers. The font for Canyon bikes is very clever. It’s back-slanted so that when it’s on the upright it’s straight. I don’t like their bikes too much because I don’t like carbon bikes but it’s a very well done brand.
What do you look for when you’re buying a new bike?
I tend to favour the small independent brands. I don’t like Cannondale or Specialized. I know they make lots of bikes and they’re well made but I have a more esoteric taste. I wish there was a store in Berlin that had a decent repair shop where they don’t look down their nose at you and it also sold Rapha clothing. Someone should open one up because it just doesn’t exist!