20 January 2011

Taliah Lempert's Vintage Rollfast

I recently came across Taliah Lempert's website.  She is a Lower East Side artist who is known for her "bicycle paintings."  She's a cyclist herself, and she owns and rides a stable of bicycles that includes everything from a folding bike she rescued from the street to a nice Bob Jackson track bike.  (It's definitely not a "hipster fixie.")

Actually, I'd seen some of her paintings before.  But, until I found her website, I knew--as many other people know--her only as the "bicycle painter."  I don't mean that to dismiss or pigeonhole her:  I thought of her that way simply because, somehow, I managed not to know her name.  

I like her work because it actually manages to capture both the aesthetic pleasures as well as the dynamic beauty of bicycles.  That, I believe is a result of her deep love of bicycles and cycling.  

Among her paintings, I was most taken, oddly enough, by this one:

I say "oddly enough" because it's a bike I've never ridden.  In fact, I've pedaled astride a tandem exactly twice in my life.  Each time was pleasant enough.  But it's difficult to find good partners and situations for riding a tandem.  Plus, the care and feeding of one is difficult and expensive, not to mention that storing one in a one-bedroom apartment isn't easy.

So, living in New York, one doesn't see many tandems.  And one is even less likely to see the one in the painting, for it hasn't been made in at least thirty years.  That was about when I saw the only specimen I've ever seen of this particular tandem, which was made by Rollfast.

I saw a fair number of Rollfast bikes when I was a kid.  That's not surprising when you consider that I grew up in Brooklyn and New Jersey, and Rollfast was a locally-produced bike.  They were first made during the 1890's by the D.P. Harris hardware company, located just three blocks from the former site of the World Trade Center.

At that time, that part of Lower Manhattan--which includes, in addition to the former World Trade Center site, parts of what are now known as Tribeca, Soho and slices of what would become Chinatown-- was known more for grimy factories and musty warehouses than fashionable stores and trendy bars.    If you saw Tribeca or Soho today, you'd have trouble remembering that those were once gritty manufacturing districts. Fifty years ago--before much of the neighborhood was cleared out for construction of the World Trade Center-- there were factories that made everything from ladies' hats to construction machinery.   One out of every four books purchased in the United States was printed and bound in that part of town.  And, of course, Harris was making Rollfast bicycles --and later, parts, after Harris entered a partnership with the H.P. Snyder Company of Little Falls, NJ and Snyder took over the manufacture of the bikes.

Although Harris wasn't driven out by the World Trade Center, most of the other manufacturing companies were.   What seemed to cause Rollfast's decline--and retreat--was the ten-speed bike boom of the early 1970's.  All of Rollfast's bikes were heavy, and most of them  had balloon tires.   Plus, they were sold through department stores like Montgomery Ward and J.C. Penney, though often under those stores' private labels.  So, even if the quality of Rollfast was equal to that of, say, Schwinn--which, in fact, it wasn't--they never would have had the same cachet as Schwinns or other bikes sold by bicycle dealers.  But Rollfasts were sturdy and sometimes quite lovely.

Perhaps one day they will have the status of an old Schwinn, or possibly a Ross.  The latter brand will probably be the next "hot" vintage bike because they were well-made, if heavy, and because it's now all but impossible to get a vintage Schwinn at anything like a sane price.  Rollfast's  day will come, too, I believe.  


  1. Speaking as someone who is currently working on a commissioned painting that includes bicycles, I have to say that it is VERY difficult to paint the damn things. Hats off to Taliah!

  2. Velouria, I'd love to see that painting when you finish. I feel that I am fair-to-average when it comes to writing about bikes, and I have enough trouble photographing them, so I can imagine what it must be like to do a painting with them.