The demand for stylish home gym equipment that fits in with the decor is on the rise. Josh Sims investigates
A circular form within a circular form, with two spiky protrusions, in matte black carbon fibre and fibre glass, it could well be a piece of modernist sculpture sitting in the corner of a swanky apartment. Look closer, however, and it transpires that one spike is a seat and the smaller circle has pedals. The Ciclotte is actually an exercise bike, named the Fitness Product of the Year and now in the permanent collection of the Triennial Design Museum of Milan.
It is, its designer Luca Schieppati says, where exercise meets style -and it wears the yellow jersey, as it were, in a pack of new products that aim to make gym equipment as stylish as it is functional.
"It may be a piece of exercise equipment, but why shouldn't any object used every day not look good?" Schieppati asks. "It still needs to perform properly, respect all the anatomical and ergonomic rules, but it can look good too - and in some way contribute to making your day better."
Indeed, fitness fans may have cared little about the looks of the equipment used while at a conventional gym. But that changes when it comes to having such products at home, as more people are, for reasons of convenience, comfort, privacy, long-term cost-saving, more targeted workouts and even status, the home gym being the new hi-tech kitchen in domestic trophy terms.
"Fitness used to be confined to particularly sporty people, who were more concerned about functionality. But now fitness is a concern to a much broader section of society - people who are more design-literate, who care about the look of the things they use, from their furniture to their computer," suggests Nerio Alessandri, the founder of Technogym, which this November opens its first store in Abu Dhabi, one of some 25 stores which will open around the world by the end of 2013. "It also reflects a shift in the industry from the functionality of 'fitness' to the more experiential idea of 'wellness'."
Certainly, more gym equipment is being designed with an awareness of its place next to the sofa. Ferrari was ahead of trend when it launched its Unica home gym in 2007, with tan leather trim and, of course, Ferrari red paintwork. This year Waterrower, a company that produces indoor rowing machines, took its cue from the fashion industry and produced a special, limited-edition model made in American red oak. Versaclimber offers a minimalistic black home version of the climbing simulation equipment it makes for professionals. And Tumedei, another manufacturer, has introduced the XFit, a compact fitness station comprising bench, treadmill, resistance pulleys, as well as TV and DVD player, that discreetly folds away into a box akin to a contemporary wardrobe. Such items are not cheap, but then, as they say in the fitness world, no pain, no gain. "Historically, the emphasis in the industry has been on form over function and, frankly, a lot of gym equipment is still terrible to look at, and the better-looking pieces are not always great to use," says David Stammers, the co-founder of the UK-based gym designers Space Concepts.
They favour Escape, the maker of more affordable exercise equipment that is still sleek and curvy in a way more expectedly found in high-end private gyms.
"We often end up taking apart pieces of equipment we've cherry-picked bolt-by-bolt and powder-coating them a particular colour to at least make them look as though they come from the same stable."
Not that such style is all superficial. Alan Gore, the co-owner of the Bodycraft gym equipment brand, has introduced subtle changes - such as the use of oval rather than square steel tubing, acrylic casings to hide ugly working parts and a wider range of colour options - to give what he calls a "softer" feel to his products. In a business that has traditionally stressed the masculine, such changes make the equipment more appealing to women, all the more so since exercise spaces at home have increasingly migrated from the basement or the garage and into the main living area. But such changes are not only good for Gore's business. They improve your workout, too.
"Motivation is a big issue in exercise and one of the key ways to help with that is if the equipment is pleasing to the eye, whether it feels exciting to use, rather than some clunky contraption that just doesn't appeal," Gore says.
Small wonder, perhaps, that it is a market that high-profile designers are now getting into. Technogym, for example, has recently launched its Recline Personal exercise bike, created in collaboration with the upmarket furniture specialists Vitra and the esteemed Italian industrial designer Antonio Citterio and part of its new Personal line - "pieces of design furniture for your physical activity at home", as the pitch has it. Similarly, the Italian company Alias has worked with the French designer Philippe Starck on its new chrome dumb-bells, barbell rack, skipping rope (complete with titanium hook to hang it on) and leather exercise mat.
"Starck is a brand in itself and that draws a certain consumer and maybe some to exercise for the first time," suggests Andrea Sanguineti, Alias' marketing manager. "But it's clearly important that we enjoy the things we interact with, even dumbbells - there are plenty of alternative tablet computers to the iPad, too, but that has a certain beauty that makes it good to use."
Maybe style is even taking over. The Ciclotte now even comes in a series of special edition paint jobs selected by the fashion designer Roberto Cavalli including, naturally enough, a model in glitzy gold steel and another in a jaguar print. One indication of how style and fitness may be merging is that these editions will only be available through Cavalli's stores.
"I'm not sure fashion designers have the expertise to improve how exercise equipment works," concedes Schieppati, "but they can definitely do a lot to make them more stylish."
According to Mark Harigian, especially picky - not to say wealthy - exercisers are increasingly taking their demand to get equipment that works their aesthetic muscles as well as their bodily ones to its logical conclusion: by having their equipment custom-made, a field in which the Los Angeles-based Harigian Fitness is a pioneer.
Custom-making - at around four times the cost of ready-made equipment - not only allows a perfect fit between the equipment and its primary user but, like a custom-built motorcycle or bespoke suit, allows the client to have it look the way they want. He counts the basketball player Shaquille O'Neal and the actor Tom Hanks among his clients.
In fact, when it comes to the style of their sweat sessions, some really go to town. Harigian has had equipment upholstery made in hand-tooled leather to match the ranch-style look of the actor Tom Selleck's home, and had equipment made in the red clay colour of the fascia of another client's Frank Lloyd Wright house.
"But while Forbes-type people especially don't want anything generic, the fact is that everybody wants the things around them at home to be stylish, whatever they are," says Harigian. "The fitness equipment industry may have been overly engineering-oriented, but it is going to have to adapt for the greater number of people now buying equipment for the home."