Ohio artists design bike racks inspired by downtown Kent’s college culture

Alicia Balog

When Mark Wentz, born and raised in Kent, saw a competition to design bike racks specifically for his hometown, he realized he had a chance to save people’s bikes from being stolen, just like his were.

“Throughout my childhood, I lost three bikes that were like my pride and joy that I paid for with my paper route,” he said. “So when I saw this thing, I was like ‘Yeah it’s a chance I can give people the ability to lock their bikes up and not have to go through what I had to when I was younger.’”

So he created about 25 bike rack designs all related to Kent, including a replica of the tree stump in his mother’s yard.

The city of Kent chose designs by Wentz and three other artists to create 18 city-inspired bike racks that are being installed throughout downtown.

*Click each location to learn more about each bike rack. Locations on the map are approximate.

Kent City engineer Jim Bowling said the bike rack project came about through finalizing a plan for creating streetscapes in downtown Kent.

Bowling said with the competition, the artists were to create designs that not only functioned as bike racks but also as public art.

“(Art)’s always been part of the fabric of who we are and when we’re coming up, looking to do as we were finalizing the downtown, we really wanted to make sure that we created a place that was memorable and unique and different, that was grounded in who we are,” he said.

The city decided to spend $50,000 for the bike racks and ultimately chose to have a fewer number of more unique bike racks than a greater number of cheaper ones.

The money for the bike racks came from funds for the downtown streetscapes and utility improvements, Bowling said.

“That was part of the renovation of downtown and that money is paid for through tax increment financing from development,” he said about the process of taking money from taxes to finance development. “So in a short concise way, you could say the money for the bike racks comes from the construction of College Town Kent and the Kent State University Hotel and Conference Center.”

Bowling said the city installed eight of the bike racks during the summer and will hopefully start installing more sometime this month after the new parking meter poles are installed.

Each artist took their own approach to designing and creating the bike racks whether by themselves or through another firm or artist. The different approaches each artist used led to the unique looks of the pieces, which are just as diverse as the citizens of Kent themselves, Bowling said.

“We represent a wide range of people and a wide range of views and that’s what we strove for with the bike racks so there’s going to be some bike racks that people will strongly relate to and there’s going to be some that they strongly don’t relate to,” Bowling said. “But that’s who we are, proud of who we are and what we represent and how that fits in the American culture.”

Wentz’s designs

Wentz, who graduated with a fine arts degree from Kent State University in 2002, designed half of the eight racks installed so far.

Wentz, who now lives in Atlanta, said people he knows from Kent were excited to see he was one of the designers.

“I thought they might think it’s kind of goofy, sculptural bike racks, but people actually love them,” Wentz said. “One lady said not only are they aesthetically pleasing, but they’re kind of like a scavenger hunt so I guess people go look and try to find the next one scattered throughout the city.”

The city chose six of his designs, which he crafted himself, including:

  • The Styrofoam and concrete stump, based off a tree in his mother’s yard and Kent’s status as a tree city, that sits near Panini’s restaurant.
  • An organic tree that sits outside Scribbles Coffee Co.
  • A music note, which he said was the hardest to create that sits in front of Ohio Music Shop and represents Kent’s music culture
  • Three Kent State students holding hands that stands in front of the Kent State University Hotel and Conference Center.
  • The Kent State crest that will stand on the other side of the Kent State University Hotel and Conference Center closer to the Esplanade.
  • A corn plant that will sit in front of Natural Foods Co-op on East Main Street. Wentz said he was “so surprised they picked it because it’s actually corn stalks made out of metal and the cobs are made out of casted glass.”

Dominic Falcione’s designs

Designer Dominic Falcione of Rubber City Fab in Akron also thought of Kent as a place for natural foods and co-ops when he designed and fabricated his blades of grass bike rack that will sit near the Haymaker Famers’ Market.

He created three bike racks, including the blades of grass, but none have been installed yet.

Falcione said though he’s curious when and how the racks will be installed, he isn’t sure how he will feel once he sees his creations even though he spent a month thinking of the designs.

“Because I modeled everything in the computer, I see it in the computer first and then I see it after it’s all fabricated and painted,” he said. “But it’s never the same once you see it installed.”

Falcione designed a glitter powder-coated peace sign that will sit in front of Dave’s Cosmic Subs and will appear to be a different color from every angle.

He also built an 8-foot-tall tree that will be located at the corner of East Erie and South Depeyster, according to an email from Bill Rudlosky of the city’s engineering division.

Falcione designed the tree to pay homage to Kent being known as a tree city. Falcione said the project presents a cool opportunity when making bike racks, such as the tree, that represent parts of Kent that people might not know.

“It’s not just a plaque that says city of Kent,” he said. “It’s something that’s made by somebody, and they’ve designed it with the idea of Kent in mind. So that’s personal to Kent and maybe first off somebody might not really know why or what a peace sign has to do with Kent. I’m sure eventually they’ll come to find out because of that bike rack they saw.”

However, just because the bike racks are designed to be unique, he said it doesn’t mean they are only public art.

“Function is number one,” he said about designing the bike racks to hold at least one bike.

David Sommers & Associates’ designs

Though the bike racks are functional, they were made to be unique to Kent, so the city is using stickers that say “Lock it up!” to inform people that these pieces of public art are usable bike racks.

Eric Pros, project manager with the architecture firm David Sommers & Associates, said he hopes the stickers eventually fade away because having them on the racks defeats the purpose of making the bike racks look unique.

“Some of the intent is to feel like street art,” said interior designer Bridget Tipton of David Sommers & Associates. “But at the same time, there is a certain amount of training that has to happen for the public before everybody starts feeling comfortable chaining their bikes to this bright yellow bolt metal sheet of steel.”

Hosting an internal competition among three groups of employees, the firm created about 25 to 30 designs. The city chose one design from each group without knowing about the competition.

The firm used four icons of downtown Kent (the train near the Pufferbelly, the Pufferbelly Restaurant, the Main Street Bridge and the grain elevator) to create a four-piece, multi-color bike rack that holds eight bikes, which is the most bikes that any of the racks can hold, Bowling said.

“You can see the mill. You can see the train station, Pufferbelly, bridge all in one view,” Pros said. “So maybe someone who lives out of town or people that don’t know much about the city of Kent can see those icons and start to understand that those are what make Kent unique.”

The city will install three similar racks designed by the firm that use interchangeable panels, such as a guitar for Kent’s music culture, a black squirrel and the Pufferbelly for Kent’s train and railroad history.

“It’s a little more simple and meant to be modular and economical, but it’s just a simple arch with an inlaid panel that has a laser-cut icon out of the middle so that the bike rack,” Tipton said. “The part that supports the bike is pretty modular and you can just replace the panel with different icons.”

The firm also designed a bike rack that looks like train wheels, which the city installed north of the Pufferbelly by the railroad tracks. Pros said the firm suggested that area because the train wheels are supposed to represent how Kent’s railroad history contributed to the city’s development.

Tom Hubbard’s designs

Bowling said his office asked the artists to suggest possible locations for the bike racks. He then worked with property owners to determine where would be best to install the racks, such as the child’s jack outside Off the Wagon toy store, which was designed by artist Tom Hubbard.

Hubbard carved out a little niche for himself as a bike rack designer after living in the bike-friendly Netherlands for several years and also designing bike racks for Cleveland, which are now being produced.

“I guess that gave me some experience with the idea of biking and commuting regularly by bike and having to park your bike and that sort of thing,” he said. “But my background as an artist I do a wide range of things so you know I was kind of interested in the idea of the bike rack and what you could do with it sculpturally and have it still function as a rack.”

So when he first found out about the contest, he researched Kent and spent time in the city to see if he could find inspiration for his designs.

“For me as a designer, the work that I do, the solution comes from the problem, and so the idea of these things being in and around downtown Kent, I thought ‘Well what are things that read as icons of Kent?’” he said. “Whether it’s a black squirrel or an oak tree or some historical reference to architecture or the old train station windows that sort of thing, and that’s sort of where the ideas came from.”

He took inspiration for some of his designs from Kent’s trees and from its history. The city chose to use his big oak tree design to be installed in front of Tree City Coffee and installed his grain elevator design on North Water Street based on the grain elevator downtown.

He said he suggested the rack be placed in the newly developed area on South Water Street to serve as a reminder of the historic parts of town in the new area.

Hubbard also played with other ideas, “things that say, ‘Look it’s a college town. It’s a little bit retro. It’s a little bit funky. It’s a little bit eclectic,’” he said. “And so I came up with this series of 20 or more different icons that I thought represented the city.”

Hubbard references Kent’s culture as a college town with his bike rack of Kent State’s mascot Flash, which will be near UniversiTees when installed.

Contact Alicia Balog at [email protected].