Deskey Flashback: The Bike That Wood Not Ride

It was 1942 and Lawrence Ottinger, president of U.S. Plywood Corp., wanted to take advantage of metal being a scarce commodity in wartime by showing people all the regular things he could make out of plywood. He decided to build a wooden bicycle (neither tested nor trendy back then) and hired Donald Deskey to design it. Donald had used unusual materials like cork in everyday products like wallpaper, so he seemed a natural choice for the bike project. It may have been the only time he should have heeded his own “this will never work” advice.

When it was time to demonstrate the bike (which cost a staggering $5,000 — $81,000 in today’s dollars), Ottinger cleared his factory floor and invited the whole company to watch. Off he pedaled on his historic ride ... one lap ... two laps ... proudly spinning around his makeshift speedway ... until a chunk of the handlebars splintered off and he was forced to thrust out his legs like kickstands and hop along with the bike until it came to a stop. The “plywood baron,” miraculously intact, was reported by The New Yorker magazine to have “stood still, glaring first at the bike and then at the broken handlebar. Articulate enough ordinarily, he had nothing to say ....”* Donald, had he witnessed the spectacle, probably would’ve had plenty to say like, “I told you so, you stubborn fool” (only not “fool”). Incidentally, Donald and Ottinger teamed up again, successfully, when U.S. Plywood marketed Weldtex, a striated plyboard Donald invented to make prefab housing more pleasing to home buyers. But that’s a story for another time. Let’s go ride bikes.

*The New Yorker, December 29, 1945, p. 24.

A replica of Donald's wooden bicycle stands in the Deskey building as a reminder that sometimes it’s best to tell a client “no.” The bike was built by students at the University of Cincinnati’s School of Design, Art, Architecture and Planning (DAAP) for an exhibit of Donald Deskey’s work in 2011.

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