Vanilla Bicycles

The rideable, hand-crafted, two-wheeled works of art from Sacha White

05/01/2013—In some ways, Sacha White’s workshop is exactly what you’d expect for a custom, hand-built-bicycle studio deep inside one of Portland, Oregon’s industrial neighborhoods. The fort-like space is abuzz with whirring lathes, flashes of welding equipment, and rough-metal frames awaiting their first coats of paint, final components, and discerning customers.

But then there’s the lone tricycle.

Perched where it’s not in the way—yet clearly visible to all—the three-wheeler is pure eye candy, like something out of Speed Racer or Flash Gordon. Retro yet thoroughly modern, the machine’s arcing, soft-blue stainless steel frame rises toward hard cherry wood and polished-metal handles, with oddly canted rear wheels brightly forged from a solid 10-inch bar of aluminum. On the step-plate, the shiny metallic cursive of White’s company, Vanilla, is proudly emblazoned.

The trike, which captured a flurry of interest in the art world a few years ago, holds a special place in the shop, because despite Vanilla Bicycle’s premium, two-wheel focus, the tricycle is the embodiment of White himself, the purest symbol of the designer’s fertile imagination. Nothing preceded its design, he’ll explain. There was no template.

That aesthetic—creating new forms where none existed before—is what drives White’s passion for, and execution of, high-end bicycles. Vanilla, whose customer waiting list stretches back five years, is about purity, strength, singularity, essence, and timelessness. You see it all in White’s eyes as he describes how these sleek-but-subtle visions of mechanical beauty and functionality come to him.

Though he drafts his frame designs with CAD software, he must first pull them from somewhere deep in his mind’s eye (“often in the wee hours of the morning,” he explains). Before he models them onscreen he’ll first capture the picture in his mind with dancing facial expressions and active, animated hands. Only then does the process of bringing them into the world begin.

Since the birth of Vanilla Bicycles in 2000, White has guided his workshop—a collaborative team of fabricators, leather artisans, even photographers—into a veritable design house, and he remains every bit the auteur, overseeing all aspect of the custom-bike-building process; he even added his own color shop, to better control the final outcome of his inner visions.

For White, it was a youthful obsession for tinkering with Vespa and Lambretta scooters that ultimately led to his life’s work. It was an itch in his later teen years that brought the Colorado native to Portlandia to become a bike messenger and racer, and it was a damaged bike that led him to legendary frame builder Tim Paterek.

That’s when the light went off.

“Tim was working on a bike from scratch. It was the first time I saw brazing,“ White says, referring to the delicate, artful method of joining the base metal by drawing tiny amounts of a third metal between them at immense heats. “It was almost alchemical, like magic.”

He studied with Paterek while still messengering and racing, then started applying what he knew from each. “I got in touch with bicycles, and what I wanted bicycles to do.”

“The big motivator for me,” he says, “is improving what already exists.” And that includes working closely with suppliers to meet his exacting standards, using higher quality silver as a brazing metal for the way it plays especially nice with steel, and imbedding subtle but striking design elements into each custom frame. Nothing leaves the shop before it’s 100-percent functionally and aesthetically complete.

White has efficiently designed his company with the same precision he designs his bikes, enabling him to spend half of each week at the bench, bringing his ideas into the world. It’s a fine line to walk—creativity and manufacture—but for him Vanilla will always be about building the essential, the pure, and the supremely balanced.

In other words, it will always be about building something that the world hasn’t seen before.