The Road to Artisan

Two British guys, two British bikes and 10,000 miles across the States in seaerch of independent craftsmen.

What better way to traverse America in search of artisans than from the saddles of two Triumph Bonnevilles? Brits Robert Nightingale and Jonathan Cazzola set off from New York to embark on a 10,000 mile expedition to discover, document and champion a select group of craftsmen fighting a rear-guard battle against the ever-increasing pressure of mass-market commercialism. 

If you’re reading this, you’re probably part of a backlash against the mass-produced, ‘one size fits all’, fast consumption lifestyle of the 21st century. Many people are now more interested in authenticity, provenance and quality rather than low prices and next day delivery. Small groups of independent craftsman are building alternative models for creating products, which ultimately could effect how customers buy things and the perception of value. 

How are these people doing this and what lives do these artisans lead? Who are at the forefront of this revolution in the home of mass consumption? We sought answers from makers of chocolate, surfboards, motorcycles, watches, suits, skis, boats, whisky, perfume and food. We set off on our Bonnevilles in search of the spirit of ‘the craftsman’ in a world where mass production prevails. 

After 37 days riding across Canada and the States, we arrived in Los Angeles, covered in red dust, salt, scrapes and sunburn. Smoke was in our eyes and callouses on our hands. With the two cameras still just about working, and 111 hours of footage from the road and workshops we had visited, everything was tucked neatly into a set of well-worn Malle bags [Robert and Jonathan are founders of Malle London]. 

Sign up for the film updates here: mallelondon.com. But in the meantime, here are some of our stories from the road… 

The Vincent Time Lord

Sam of Vincent Works in Colorado is the leading authority on the marque in the US – probably in North and South America. He builds, restores, rides and lives Vincent. Not only did we count 47 Vincents in his workshop, from almost complete Rapide restorations, to Vincent Black Shadows that could fit in a few shoe boxes and a rare White Shadow – but he had a small Vincent boat engine, that once powered a jet-ski style personal watercraft that Vincent built in the 50s. 

After an initial tour of the workshop Sam says: “We have to go and see a man about a truck.” A tall man, Sam dwarfs his Buell motorcycle and rides fast, with his long legs perched on the rear passenger pegs for comfort. We ride an hour across Western Colorado to see some Rat Rods. The more chopped, lowered, rusty, aggressive and apocalyptic the better the Rat Rod. 

What Sam kept showing us was time. “Look at how much time went into that weld,” he says. Time is not money, time is value. Sam values time. 

But instead of buying a Rat Rod, Sam bids on a small stretched motorcycle, made from a two-man industrial chainsaw, with a BMX front wheel and side shifter that looks like a shrunken voodoo skull. The time that had gone into this curious motorcycle is indeed deeply impressive. 

Tyler makes surfboards from disused water towers

Surfing a water tower

Tyler is a young Californian who spends time in his small windowless workshop on the outskirts of LA, listening to British rock music with a dust mask on. He and the Year One Surf Co. workshop are both covered head to toe in a fine red dust from the reclaimed Northern California redwood he’s shaping. 

When we rode through the massive trees earlier it felt like we were in the forest scenes from Star Wars. In fact, unbeknown to us then, George Lucas grew up nearby and shot parts of his films there. These trees are now protected, but 100 years ago people logged them and often turned them into huge water towers. 

Now when Tyler hears of a Californian water tower being demolished, he’s the first guy there to buy the reclaimed wood. He uses this precious material to make his unique surfboards, which are all hand-shaped. Each board may have once stood above LA for the last hundred years in the form of a water tower, but now they glide along the waves of the Californian coast and could do for another hundred. 

What surprised us most was the weight of the boards – so light. He uses a construction similar to an aeroplane wing, so it’s completely hollow, yet, thanks to the redwood, extremely strong. And what better way to get rid of the sawdust than go surfing. 

Danny, the Irish-American nightclub owner from Detroit who now runs an organic farm

Making Food

According to Danny – who’s an Irish-American ex-nightclub bouncer from Detroit – seven years ago a technician in Ohio accidentally flipped a switch which plunged Detroit into a five day black-out in the middle of summer. 

“It got very ugly, very quickly,” he says. “Lootin’, robbin’, no food, no air-con. Lawless.” But he arrived on schedule at 7am to the farmers market with 250 boxes of fresh fruit and vegetables, all of his customers got their bio-dynamic organic produce. To say Danny doesn’t trust ‘the system’ is something of an understatement. But, after 15 years in the nightlife scene, he had an epiphany and decided to create something for himself, something good. 

He wanted to make food, good food with no pesticides, no fertilizers or genetically modified strains. He set about educating himself… and it turns out arming himself too, due to his most recent ‘high value’ crop. 

We rode four hours north from Detroit to find Danny’s farm. He has no email or internet, so he’d be a hard guy to learn of from London. We learnt about how he rotates the crops and uses very ancient, but wholly natural, farming techniques to create exceptionally large juicy fruit, vegetables and medical marijuana (his prize high-value crop). 

Life for Danny is pretty tough (as we’d seen for many of our artisans), with large industrial organizations with labs, lawyers and politicians making the competition exceptionally strong. But when customers understand the difference, they’re very loyal and Danny knows how good his product is and looking at his farm, so rich in life, it’s no wonder he’s so happy. 

Max’s Motorcycles

We’d heard a lot about Max Hazan so we were delighted when we discovered someone was bringing a ‘Max Hazan Ducati’ to exhibit at The Mile [Robert and Jonathan’s gentlemanly off-road motorcycle race]. It was a real showstopper of a motorcycle and he happily invited us to visit him at the tail end of our expedition. Apparently it’s rare to get an interview with Max. 

We’d done our research on Max’s bikes and I’d seen one of his first Royal Enfields in New York – the infamous one with the mahogany seat, so we knew we’re in for a treat. But we had no idea he creates so much of the bike. 

In the corner of his downtown LA workshop, up on the sixth floor above the garment district, are piles of raw steel tubing, sheet aluminium and off-cuts of brass. 

Apart from the heart of the engine and the tyres he makes everything else by hand… everything. He’s on a one man mission to challenge how a bike can be made – not setting out to re-invent for the sake of it, but just challenging himself, on how to re-think a suspension system or how to re-engineer an oversized drum brake. And he makes it all by hand – because he can. 

Charley, the chocolatier from Portland, Oregon.

Charley and the Chocolate Factory

Charley welcomed us into Woodblock Chocolate with a big grin and immediately presented us with wonderful chocolate samples – you could smell the smoke from the cocoa beans he’d been roasting from down the street. This was a great introduction to Portland, after we’d just spent the last three days riding across Oregon and Washington from Montana through the heaviest forest fires in that part of the States for over a decade. It turns out that when Charley decided to make a bar of chocolate from scratch, about ten years ago, he had no idea that becoming a chocolate maker is rather more dangerous than being a chocolatier. The subtle difference is that a chocolatier reforms industrial chocolate, whereas a chocolate maker actually roasts the beans and creates the entire product from scratch. 

But first he had to find the beans. It’s fine if you’re Cadbury’s and want 5000 tonnes of the stuff, but it was then impossible to buy a few kilos. A few months later Charley found himself walking through the jungles of Trinidad, with a heavily armed guard, a blade in his fist and a few thousand dollars in small bills in his pocket to negotiate his first cocoa bean buy. If you taste his chocolate you’ll be glad he took the risk. 

None of Charley’s farmers had ever tasted chocolate made from their own crop until his second supply mission. He took them samples from his first batch and spends time now working with the farmers to improve cocoa harvests. 

mallelondon.com

Sarah Norman

Bauer Media, Lynch Wood, Peterborough, , PE2 6EA