Gregor Fras is a philosopher who has been immersed in design his entire life. For over twenty years, he creates digital stories in the roles of either a creative, architect or designer of user experiences and user interfaces for some of the most challenging digital products. He is the founder of one of the first digital agencies in Slovenia and recipient of multiple design awards. A happily married father of two sons let us inside his mind and shared his views on cycling, music, life, its pleasures and of course – Noordung.
How did it all begin? Where did you get the idea to create Noordung?
At some point in my life, I rented a design studio that was at an ideal biking distance from my home. The only bike I had until then was a mountain bike, but never a city bike, hence I bought myself one. Just a plain ordinary city bike. Despite my general enthusiasm, something was bothering me. The bike I rode to work every day, was essentially a product based on a century old technology. I am a huge technology freak, so one day I told myself: »Let's see what a modern city bike looks like.« So I started googling and …
...and you got thousands of hits?
No, that's the point. The more I researched, the more I started to realize that it's impossible to find a bike that I would actually like. Simply put, I couldn't find a bike that was both beautiful by design and high-tech. There were tons of high-tech recreational bikes, both road and mountain, but city bikes looked and felt mostly identical to the ones from one hundred years ago.
And that pushed you into starting this company?
Not immediately. At first, when I was still being reasonable, I only wanted to build a custom bike for myself. But as I was delving deeper and deeper into creating my »perfect bike«, I started to realize that the whole process is becoming way too complicated to be only treated as a »side project«, so 3 years ago, I decided to start a company and invested some of my own money in it. I quickly got a few friends on board, who started helping me developing (now) our product. I joke that I probably came up with the most convoluted excuse to persuade my wife that I need an expensive bike.
Is Noordung an electric bike?
That's right. Noordung is officially a classic electric bike as per the EU directive, where the electric motor provides assistance while the rider pushes the pedals and where its top speed is limited to 25 kph. Electric bikes are definitely the next big thing in the biking industry, especially in the segment of city bikes where, in contrast to recreational bikes, sweating is an unwanted side effect of its use (riding to work, meetings, etc.)
What I find even more appealing is that Noordung is also – a traditional bike. In my opinion, the biggest drawback of urban electric bikes is their weight, which renders them practically useless once the battery runs out, or when the rider just wants to – ride. That's why we at Noordung tried to build as light a bike as possible, therefore we chose to build the frame out of carbon fiber. By the way, Noordung is the only cruiser bike in the world with a carbon fiber frame! In this respect, we wanted to build an ideal hybrid bike, where human effort may or may not be joined by electric assistance. It depends. While riding to a meeting, electric assistance can help us arrive there sweat free. On the other hand, we may want to sweat out some of the stress while riding home from work, so we can afford to refrain from using electric assistance.
After numerous test kilometers, I realized that I only use electric assistance about half of the time. During the other half, I really like to feel my legs being more active. One of the core values of Noordung is to encourage its clients to lead and promote a healthy lifestyle.
Electric drive seems to be ubiquitous in urban cycling, but music is definitely something new. How did music come into the picture?
Music is without a doubt one of the most important things in my life. I love good music, it's with me everywhere I go. Honestly, I came up with the idea while studying electric bikes and realized how all the manufacturers are treating the battery as an unwanted accessory. From a design perspective, that is. To me, the battery, as a source of energy, represented the heart of the bike, which deserved to be put on display. I found an ideal spot on top of the bike frame, where you can usually find a gasoline tank on motorcycles.
Once I made the battery the centerpiece of the frame, I started to wonder what other functionalities this tool could provide. I quickly came up with the idea of installing two speakers to which you can connect your smart phone and listen to music. Until then, I used headphones, which seriously limit your awareness around you and can be outright dangerous. That's also the reason why many countries have banned them while biking. And that's how our Boombox came to life.
Although some beg to differ, I feel that listening to music while riding is one of the best experiences ever! Music adds a whole new dimension to bike traveling and renders it even more beautiful. One of our test riders said it best after he came back from his test ride. With a big smile on his face, he said: »I felt like I was in a movie!«
Noordung bike and music are two components of one great idea, that's why we called it: An urban electric bike for music lovers.
Although the Boombox is not your only association with music. You've recently formed your own music group, haven't you?
You are correct. Along with a torrent of creative individuals, a few outstanding, academically trained musicians joined our movement. As a music group, they will independently create original music. We have just recorded our first single titled »Traveling Light« and made a wonderful video that pictures the joys of riding a bike and the beautiful nature of Slovenia – a country where we come from and which we love. Traveling Light is the first song from the coming album »Joy in Journey«. We are currently working on the second song which will be punchier and will take place in an urban setting.
The female vocalist in the group is your wife, Eva Hren, who you say is the inspiration behind this whole project?
Eva is an academically trained musician in jazz singing and classical guitar. She is one of the leading jazz and ethnic music performers in Slovenia. Life with her is an incredible journey and I am very grateful that she brought so much music to my life, home and family. Eva has a very broad taste in music and she has introduced me to its many different facets.
The most fascinating uniqueness of music is how it touches you emotionally; good music goes straight to the heart and, as we say, touches your soul. In this respect, it is similar to outstanding design that transcends the functional appeal of a product and opens up so many other levels. It can calm you down. It can encourage your curiosity. It can awake yearning, love, sadness, joy. It can break with the status quo and start a revolution!
Noordung band is an experiment where we want to introduce the creation of music to the process of creating a bike, connect the creative energies and broadcast our values to the general public, even through the means of music – from joy in journey to respecting our environment.
Let's go back to the bike. Music isn't its only outstanding feature?
Our most revolutionary innovation is that we added a particulate matter sensor into the Boombox, which measures the presence of harmful particles PM2.5 and PM10 in the air while the bike is in use. The sensor connects to a smartphone and shows the biker real time information on the air quality along his route. Hence it's giving the biker the means and motivation to find the cleanest route possible.
I'm excited by the thought what our innovation might bring to urban areas by crowd-sourcing and mapping of this data. The official measuring stations in cities are fixed which means they can only provide accurate information for the micro location where they're placed. Once we have these sensors on bikes, which are mobile and are usually ridden where pedestrians move, we can get a much more accurate and dispersed map of air quality on locations most frequented by people. In other words, with our solution we might actually get an accurate picture of how polluted urban centers and bike paths actually are. In addition, we're also increasing the awareness of pollution levels and we encourage people to start thinking more green. Environmental responsibility is one of the core values of Noordung and we intend to build on it even further.
Design also seems to be a special value at Noordung...
When we created Noordung, we've set ourselves a goal to create “the most beautiful urban bike in the world”. It sounded like a pretentious goal, one that perfectly fits into the category of the usual overhyped startup promises. Nevertheless, I really do think that we came close. Based on the responses we're getting from everyone who see it, there's not a person that's left cold after they set their eyes on Noordung. I am a strong fan of Scandinavian, minimalist design, where every line has its place, where functionality and beauty are seamlessly intertwined.
Noordung's design is obviously inspired by the café racer culture and classic cruiser bikes. However, I believe that we managed to pay tribute to this tradition while also infusing some contemporary and high-tech spirit into it.
Aleksander Praper, an exceptional industrial designer, has been a part of this project from its very inception and is also one of the partners in the company. He created this breathtaking carbon frame, with its subliminal curves that is a work of art on its own. Alekdander compares these lines to a female body as a representation of organic perfection of proportions and curves.
But your background is in digital production, how did you end up in industrial design?
I love making digital products; It's a game of interactions, storytelling at the content, design and technology levels. I have to admit that the whole ephemeral nature of digital products was causing me quite some frustration. Things change so fast that the technology and the user interface get replaced ever quicker, effectively making your product to history.
I come from a family of architects, A good building lasts 100 years or longer, outstanding architecture can remain relevant practically forever. I wanted to build something that will stand the test of time. I wouldn't be so bold at this point and say that the design of our bike will last forever but it does seem to me that it's a worthwhile goal to strive to.
Are there any essential differences between creating digital and physical products?
Endless. Someone once told me that industrial design is great, the only thing that's missing is the undo button. That's probably the most obvious difference between a digital and a physical product. The iterations in the digital world are a lot less painful, both from a financial and time perspectives.
I learned this the hard way. At the same time, I feel that this so called “digital background” gave me a unique, fresh and less constrained view of the biking industry, which I sometimes find dull and unimaginative, especially in the field of urban bikes.
Where does your study of philosophy fit in?
There's a branch of philosophy called ontology. Ontology is the philosophical study of being. Why something is rather than isn't. It's a deductive philosophical method, it explores the essence of things, events, phenomena. To me, this always seemed similar to design; to find that minimum that makes something something. In this respect, we at Noordung are looking for the essence of a bike, the essence of cycling. Which we find in joy in journey.
What are Noordung's sales targets?
After three years of intensive development, we've finally reached a stage where we actually started manufacturing our bikes. We have deliberately decided to only focus on highly exclusive limited editions by manual assembly which should instill every bike with a bit of soul of its creators. In 2019, we will only build 300 bikes from the first production series which we called Noordung One – First Edition and offer them to the market.
We have chosen ten European cities, where we want to find our first buyers, who will become our ambassadors, or as I like to put it, a part of our family. These cities will be Zurich, Oslo, London, Berlin, Copenhagen, Amsterdam and Vienna, amongst others. My sincere wish is to make the sales process as personal and honest as possible. I'd like to meet the riders of Noordung bikes, shake their hand and wish them lots of joy in their journies.
Let's go back to music, before we finish. You said that it's an important part of your life. What are you listening to lately?
It may be slightly atypical for my general taste in music, but I recently stumbled upon a jazz standard “Every Time We Say Goodbye” by Chet Baker. It's a 7-minute masterpiece of a beautiful melancholic emotion that we feel when we're saying our goodbyes. I'm fascinated how people used to be able to take their time for good melodies, which is practically impossible in this day and age.
But one of the most important lessons I learned while building the story of Noordung, is that for true pleasure, it's always important and worth it to take your time. And that getting there will take its time too.
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