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Design Museum of Chicago
Written By Design Museum of Chicago

The Design Museum of Chicago strengthens design culture and builds community by facilitating the exchange of knowledge through dynamic experiences. Through exhibitions, public and private programs, digital media, and workshops the museum facilitates an open conversation about design across disciplines and borders.

This is the former location of the Excelsior Supply Company. Excelsior was founded in 1876 by George T. Robie, a German immigrant like Ignaz Schwinn and Schoeinger (Western Wheel Works). Excelsior distributed sewing machine parts, but in the 1880s began to explore distribution of bicycle parts, supplies, and accessories. This was not an unusual path for a business to follow; many Chicago companies had a main manufacturing focus and also made bicycles during the boom of the late 19th century.

Robie's son, Frederick, was enrolled in Purdue University's mechanical engineering school, but dropped out in order to to work for Exclesior. Frederick's interests lay in motorcycles and cars, and Excelsior released "The Excelsior," its first motorcycle, in 1907. The design was wildly successful.

So successful, in fact, that in 1908 Frederick Robie commissioned architect Frank Lloyd Wright to design a home in Hyde Park. This, of course, is the the Robie House and is considered one of the best examples of the Prairie Style of architecture in the world.

In 1912, Ignaz Schwinn purchased the Excelsior Supply Company. His son, Frank Schwinn, ran the motorcycle line and was quite successful, with Excelsior bikes consistently ranking just behind Indian and Harley-Davidson in sales. The Depression hit Excelsior hard, and Schwinn closed the motorcycle division in 1931. However, Frank's motorcycle expertise gave him the ideas, connections, and confidence to incorporate motorcycle-esque design in Schwinn bicycles. These elements, like balloon tires, chrome, tanks, and headlights, gave Schwinn their distinct look and desirability, catapulting them to the top of the bicycle industry in the early 20th century.

Keep Moving: Designing Chicago's Cycling History


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