Who does this guy remind me of? It’s a character in a film and it’s on the tip of my tongue. When I ask him if he’s often told he looks like someone famous, none of the names he reflects back are at all right. And still I can’t quite pinpoint it. I first meet Tom Warmerdam sitting in the sun along side another chap, looking at a radical full-suspension frame design prototype by another local artisan. Both are drinking Coronas, sitting on crappy stools at their makeshift conference table, both looking, thinking, designing. I unpack and move in for the afternoon, their meeting appearing to come to a natural end anyway, but you can see the thought of this machine lighting up both of their eyes. My overwhelming impression of my day at Demon Frameworks is that design is critical.
These headquarters are usually small places of insignificant appearance in the middle of nowhere, but Demon takes the biscuit. You’d never think that what came out of the doors had been created inside. It’s incredible the engineering genius that is produced in what looks (and smells) like a pre- war tin shed in the corner of a run down car park in Southampton, lined by railway tracks and watched over by scrap yard guard dogs. Incredible and beautiful in fact. I’ve meant to come down here for ages, it’s my end of the country, the uptight, over populated, grumpy but sunny part of England known as the beautiful south. Beautiful, it has to be said, is not a word often associated with post- industrial dockside cities. Tragically, the Luftwaffe had a pretty good go at getting rid of this one seventy years ago, and heartbreakingly, local authorities have continued to rebuild parts of it unsympathetically decade after decade ever since. Southampton is an interesting city though, and I think there is beauty here. I find places that have history through heavy industry often have a more real presence than merely a shopping or heritage destination (the two main reasons most of the British public generally visit anything these days). Bath in the west country is one, Bristol another. They also seem to have another thing in common: a real bike subculture. Not in a one-leg-rolled- up, flat-cap fixie kind of a way, but as a birthplace of real two-wheeled ingenuity. Frame builders come from these places. Bikes are born here.
Demon Frameworks was born about four years ago in Southampton, where Tom learned how to do everything needed to actually make one of his numerous designs come to life. “The first one I built didn’t work at all.” When I ask where it is now, a finger points to a cardboard box with chopped down tubes sticking out of it. Ah. “The second one was really good though, really nice,” Warmerdam recalls. “I found my mojo on that one.” No second album syndrome here then. But was the obsession with lugs always part of the blueprint to Demon? “I love lugs.” Tom realised as beautiful as most lugs are, if the bikes were to be his he needed his own. The lugs on the NAHBS winner, The Manhattan road bike, are incredibly shaped, intricate modernist cutouts. They’re beautiful. But they’re more than that, they’re comic-book cool. They remind me of the elevators in the lobby of the Empire State building and as I mention this Tom finishes the statement in tandem. At that point I realise there’s a lot more to all this than just trendy frame details.
I’ve read that Warmerdam refers tohis work with terms like “brutalist,” “art deco” and “modernist.” Again, it’s all about design—not just a surface aesthetic. This is deeper than that;
this stuff has a cultural quality, an intelligence that is unique. After only a few moments of sitting down and going through what he does, it becomes clear that Warmerdam is intelligent and loves what he does—I guess you don’t get to win awards for your work if you don’t have the brains and the passion, but there is something I can’t quite put my finger on here, he’s not just another bike geek engineer that a current trend has caught up with. He’s not that bothered by trends or being popular or wearing moustaches and flat caps. He’s not that bothered by much actually. So we sit and drink Coronas in the sun and talk influences.
So what about that Hermes track bike? “I was watching The Clash of the Titans (the 1981 version) and realized there’s so much to draw from Greek mythology,” Warmerdam says. “Hermes had winged sandals, man—winged sandals! How can that not inspire a super fast bike design?” Suddenly the lugs and the joints and the dropouts come to life when you put them in context. This thing is obviously meant to fly. The finish of these bikes is really different too, but one thing connects them: no paint. Tom doesn’t like paint, preferring instead for people to be able to see the workmanship. The Manhattan reminds me of the popularity of VW buses being rusty and battered on the outside and shiny and in immaculate working order underneath. The Hermes is starting to change and evolve. It’s a cliché, but it’s like it’s alive. When you get one of these bikes home, it’s not going to stay the same. The Hermes is copper plated (4 microns thick, which is thinner and lighter than paint) so when you chip it, the amazing brown metallic patina turns bright copper. Then in time, that blemish goes green like an old church roof. It’s surely the only finish that can look better the more you lean it against lampposts.
The talk shifts to backgrounds. I figure like me Warmerdam is of architect stock, but it turns out not to be so. However, were there engineers or designers further up the family tree? Where does that interest in architecture come from? “There’s inspiration in so many things, all around you, all the time. You’ve just got to look—or notice,” Warmerdam says. Hence The Clash of the Titans epiphany I suppose. There is great respect for his family though. “Amazingly supportive parents” and a grandfather that obviously has had a large place in his heart, have shaped Warmerdam. “He was an amazing influence, he worked with his hands as a cabinet maker creating beautiful, intricate designs.” This has clearly affected Tom. Watching and learning has run deep here, his grandfather’s legacy being played out as his future. Safe hands to keep it in.
The aesthetic is so strong on these bikes I wonder how important the science is to a Demon bike? Where does the form-follows-function argument end up here? “The science is key, but the aesthetic must be spot on, so the two do have to be friends,” Warmerdam says. “We’re not quite Bauhaus here, but there’s mix. Perhaps not industrialism or brutalism but definitely a bit Gotham. There’s some ‘superhero’ going on in this little shed alright.” Sniffing around the workshop unearths all manner of gems, as it usually does in a place like this. My particular favourite is the old green medicine cabinet drawers. “That’s where all the lugs live,” Warmerdam tells me. A high-rise for lugs, how fitting. The CNC machine looms large in the corner. Old, heavy machinery is the staple of the bike workshop, but I was surprised to see computer in there as well. I had images of drawing boards and all manner of measuring devices. There is a floppy tri-colour Italian measuring tape that looks like it gets used a lot. It fits better with the vibe of the old oak worktop strewn with lugs and mugs, empty Corona bottles and the old brown overcoat hanging in the corner. “As a child
I was always impressed with my Grandfather’s overcoat; I realise now it had so much symbolism for me, so I went and found one like his, but with a modern twist—it has a mobile phone pocket.” Familiar clues lie about the place: broken test wheels, fork legs, odd components in varying states of undress, the smell of lubricant hangs in clumps like mist in a wood. I always get excited looking through the viewfinder in a workshop and this one’s no different. They’re always so full of promise.
A wall opposite has proud but subtle NAHBS winning references. How was that episode, an experience and a half? “They were all such nice people, it all felt so close-knit and friendly,” Warmerdam says. I imagine that to mean a lot to a small-scale bike producer from a wet little island off the mainland (Europe). It could all be quite daunting I would imagine, exhibiting next to Independent Fabrication and Moots and seeing Gary Fisher and Chris Chance wandering about and peeking in for a glance. But Tom seems to have taken it all in his stride—with a deep confidence and a warm and generous spirit. I get the impression he doesn’t pay too close attention to whether people love or hate his creations. Warmerdam’s work is a reflection of a personal journey of discovery that happens while creating some of the most beautiful bike frames in the world. You’re welcome to hop on and see where it ends up, too—as long as you’ve brought the beers, or in my case, a brie and grape sandwich.