You may not be immediately familiar with this ‘nom de plume’, but if you have spent any time over the past couple of years looking at some of the stunning custom motorcycles that have surfaced across the many message boards and blogs of the world wide web, you will undoubtedly have seen his work.
It’s an industry secret [of sorts] that not all custom builders are actually responsible for the design of their own bikes every time. Luminaries such as Roland Sands, Marcus Walz and Cafe Racer Dreams (to name just a few) have enlisted the digital services of the Holographic Hammer to help them plan out and realise their analogue concepts. Like a ‘Banksy’ of the motorcycle ‘art’ world, Holographic Hammer has long been a taciturn, near-faceless operator within the hyped, often over-promoted world of custom motorcycling. Until now…
Eighteen months ago, Sylvain was stood alongside Roland Sands to present their concept for the new ‘R90s’ to the world, and whilst it was the strawberry-blonde, American darling of the custom industry - Sands - who took the plaudits for the build, Berneron stood quietly by - in the shade - but proud of his achievements.
‘When you start a project like that, the whole team sketches for it, it’s an open theme. For show bikes like that it’s basically the best sketch that wins. And I had my sketch selected, so I got the chance to develop it. I did the 3D model right up to milling of the hard form that we sent Roland to use as the base for his fabrication. It was my baby for a while and I had a load of fun doing it’.
So how do you go from a kid messing about in fields to putting pen to paper for BMW? Like many people who have developed a love of motorcycling, Sylvain began riding and then racing motocross.
‘Motorcycling quite literally kept me on the right track. When it was dry I was riding and when it was raining I was at home drawing bikes. So when it was time for me to choose my study direction it was a simple choice for me. I went straight into Transportation Design to learn how to draw bikes properly. I did an A level in fine arts to learn the basics and then it was five years for my Masters degree’.
Midway through his degree, Sylvain caught the eye of the Bavarian Motor Works company who offered him a job as an external designer. The first production bike that he started work on was the F800 GS Adventure; he was nineteen. It wasn’t long before the design team at BMW Motorrad offered him a full-time position. But even this came with its own, unique problem,
‘They wanted to hire me as a permanent guy, but then Human Resources stopped me and said “Woah! Hang on, where’s your diploma? We can’t hire you if you don’t have the right qualifications”, Haha!’, he smiles at the incredulous bureaucracy of the situation, ‘These guys took me out of school, stopped me getting my qualifications and then realised that I couldn’t work for them because I didn’t have the right level of grades.
No diploma, no job! So I had to stop, go back to school and BMW promised to keep a position open for me’.
This final year out from the daily dose of creativity that was working closely with near-legendary BMW designer Edgar Heinrich and his second in command, Ola Stenegärd, became a turning point for Sylvain. His final year project - an ambitious, electric GP race machine that featured two-wheel steering, elastic spokes that deform in conjunction with the road and a seat unit that moves along with the rider and independently from the frame (in order to maximise weight transfer) - was naturally emblazoned with the BMW roundel; but having spent years working with some of the most talented designers in the motorcycling world and then being thrown back into University life, he soon found himself wanting for deeper inspiration. So he began taking small, custom commissions from family and friends in order to keep the creative juices flowing.
Holographic Hammer was born and as word spread and requests for designs flooded in, a slow-burning Internet following emerged.
Upon his return to Munich, a few aspects of his year out returned with him; the clay model of his graduation project spent a year situated in BMW’s design HQ and Holographic Hammer became a side-line project that took up his evenings and weekends, once the day job had finished. No small task considering that the German working day starts at 6am.
‘For the first time in my life I stopped riding motorcycles and spent my weekends at my desk working on Holographic Hammer builds. It was a really tough year and when you work like this - all of the time - you start to lose the taste of what it is that you are doing’, he adjusts his posture, sits up and with a smile continues, ‘So I quit my job!’
‘I did it for two reasons really', he continues, 'I miss my family and girlfriend and I want to be closer to them, but also it’s my dream to design and build bikes the way that I want them. Not that I can’t do that at BMW’, he qualifies swiftly, ‘it’s just that I love bikes and I want to do them completely as I love them... And when you build a bike that comes in 5000 pieces you have to make sacrifices - sacrifices for the customer, for the budget, for the process.’
‘So it’s a case of Holographic Hammer becoming big enough for you to take it all on full-time?’, I ask him, ‘After getting the opportunity to build bikes with BMW this doesn’t really seem like enough for someone like yourself?’
‘No, Holographic Hammer will really on ever be just a side thing. My dream is to be able to build bikes and to keep doing design consulting for particular OEMs [manufacturers]. Like I said, it’s a combination of factors; family, friends… The NineT is a wonderful bike because it balances all of the elements so well together, and I think life should be like that also.
Even if you love bikes, if you only ever do bikes then you’re going to end up sad and a little alone’, he chuckles, ‘this was my case at BMW towards the end. I’m sketching twelve hours a day but don’t really have anyone to share this enthusiasm with. So something had to give’.
‘But I’ve had some lucky timing. I’ve been able to save up some money and my brother - who’s also an engineer - and I are going to open up a small workshop in Paris. I’m going to build bikes under my own name and keep doing what I’m doing in the meantime.’
‘I grew up racing; I like dynamic and fast bikes. So my style is always going to follow that. I’d never build something that doesn’t work just because it looks beautiful. My bikes are going to have a great powertrain and I’ll try to make them look as beautiful as possible, but never the opposite. I don’t really know yet if I’m honest… I’ve planned a couple of months where I’ll be creating my design strategy and then once this is done we’ll start building bikes. But only then’.
For many, the act of motorcycling in itself is a risk; the notion of trying to forge a career in the motorcycling industry even more so. So, to then announce yourself onto the world stage with bikes as well recognised as the Concept90 and as well received as the F800 GS Adventure, before quitting it all and walking away seems foolhardy. But there’s something about Sylvain and his attitude towards motorcycle design - and life in general - that makes you believe that this could be the beginning of something quite special indeed.
Fittingly for the bike world’s ‘Banksy’, a few weeks later we meet up again with Sylvain under a heavily Graffiti-ridden bridge at the launch of Fred Kruggers’ ‘Nurb’s Project’ bike in Paris.
Just a couple of days before, I read on the Holographic Hammer Facebook page that - and we’re quoting directly here – “we’ve just signed a contract with MV Agusta to design a proposal for a new motorcycle concept”. It’s the first thing that I mention to him when we meet and despite looking excited and raising his hand up for a high-five, he’s reticent to give anything else away. ‘It’s so exciting. I guess I’m going to have to get the floors of my new workshop finished now. I can’t tell you anymore but it’s an absolute dream!’
So the young, web-savvy Frenchman behind some of the Internet’s most hyped custom designs and BMW’s Concept90 is going to be working under the wings of Britain’s Adrian Morton at MV Agusta – the man responsible for the delectable F3.
How’s that for stoking up some Internet buzz?
BMW/Roland Sands - Concept Ninety
‘There were two reasons for us producing this bike. Naturally it was the ninety year celebration of BMW, but it was also forty years since the R90s, so we wanted to do a homage to that. And the NineT platform is probably the closest product you can get to the emotion of the original bike; even though back then the R90s was the Hayabusa of it’s day!
We’ve gone as far as we can with the petrol engine and now with electronics we’re hitting the limits of where we can go with countering for the riders fallibility, so we need to start bringing the emotions back into our machines. This was my attempt at doing that.’
NineT Imposter - El Solitario
‘I’m not responsible for this’, laughs Sylvain, ‘David is a friend and a crazy artist, but we talked back and forth about what happens when you grow a wheel at the front, smaller one at the back and things like that’.
‘This bike is so outrageous and I truly love it, especially in movement. I’ve seen it in movement and it’s an extension of him somehow. You need to have massive balls to build something like this – especially when a brand like BMW commissioned it, I couldn’t do it. He’s a very clever guy and he’s a hugely educated person how’s seen so many things. He’s bored of the usual things so he want to surprise himself. it shouldn’t be called ‘Imposter’, it’s almost a design thesis. There are so many ideas in this back that you could take a single one and just produce a design based around that. He’s put them all in a single build’.
Marcus Walz - El Ratón Asesino
‘Marcus was one of the first bike builders to properly use the potential of Holographic Hammer. Although we do illustrations, we make sure that our clients get to have all the dimensions as well, so you can actually use our work as plans to build the real thing.
We’ve done Norton’s, Guzzi’s (the Senna homage was from us as well), BMWs and finally this Yamaha for Yamaha and their Yard Built program’.
‘The brief was to turn the Bolt into a cafe racer, which is a lot harder than it looks, because of the standard wheel sizes and the lack of ground clearance. But we found something that worked and Marcus ran with it, and took it to where it is now’.
Roland Sands -Track Chief
‘Roland and I were discussing about the new Indian at Wheels & Waves (a custom bike festival held in Biarritz) two years ago, and we were raving about the beauty of the engine in particular. But it was just a chat, nothing serious’.
‘But I went back to Munich and over a rainy weekend I took some time and sketched up something around it. I sent the sketches to Roland, he immediately took it to Indian and they partnered up to build the Track Chief. He did an incredible job’.
SprintBeemer - Lucky Cat Garage
‘Seb’s a friend of mine and I rode this at Glemseck. ’He wanted to start doing sprint races and developed this whole project in a very coherent way. It’s a 1000cc classic, boxer engine which makes no sense in a sprint bike, but he wasn’t planning a career in racing so he thought it would be a solid base to use. So you’ve got the rigid frame, square tyres and inverted gearbox on one side and then you’ve got this emotion coming from this engine. It’s hilarious but perfect at the same time.
And that’s why people rave about this bike. It’s that mix of a love for motorcycles and the pure function of a sprint racer. I love it’.
Tzar - Sylvain Berneron
Sylvain’s own bike is a Suzuki 1200 Inazuma from the late 80’s,
‘I wanted a steel frame and I wanted something strong with a reliable engine, so no water cooling but with decent torque and power from an inline four rather than a 1000cc old-school japanese engine. It was this GSX1200 Inazuma or the ZRX1200. I took this one because I think it has the better looking tank.’
‘The Bandit was a lot more famous but this one has a classic architecture going under the tank and I love it. I swapped the front end with a modern GSXR forks and brakes and rebuilt the whole subframe to take the new tail-unit. Plus there’s a few extra Yoshimura parts in the engine also, so it’s jumped to 163bhp. I ride it on the road and the track and it’s a great compromise. It worked as I planned it on paper, I’ve had it a few years now and it does exactly what I wanted it to do.I still love it!’
Sylvain helped MCN create a special Yamaha XV950, you can see the finished result here.