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Engineering with personality: MIAD alum on Industrial Design

Chris Terpstra ’12 (Industrial Design) built his first motorcycle at age 14 using an old rototiller engine, an exercise bike and steel fence posts, among other things. Today, the Milwaukee Institute of Art & Design (MIAD) alum is still repurposing old parts to build new machines. His most recent invention is a hubless electric penny farthing bicycle.

Many of Terpstra’s designs and inventions center around a mode of transportation. “What I enjoy about transportation and vehicles is the sense of freedom that it provides,” explains Terpstra, noting that the first motorcycle he built allowed him to visit friends. “At the time I would drive it 35 miles round trip, down back country roads to visit friends,” he says.

Terpstra’s latest creation, which he calls a penn-E-farthing, is loosely inspired by a combination of Dr. Seuss-esque absurdity and Wild Wild West steampunk aesthetics. “What I enjoy about Dr. Seuss and steampunk-styled vehicles is that they’re kind of wacky, being constructed out of odds and ends and repurposed parts,” says Terpstra. “The design is purely aesthetic without consideration to mass production cost or scalability, resulting in a unique, sometimes odd and not user friendly build. I approach it as an experiment into what can be done, not always what should be done.”

To share his experience with DIY building and design, Terpstra started his YouTube channel Chris Makes Stuff. There, he documented the building process and (shaky) test ride of the penn-E-farthing, as well as a number of other inventions from a power motor for a river tube to garden tractors to an electric off-road skateboard.

YouTube followers will notice that most of Terpstra’s videos emphasize DIY projects, repairs or repurposed parts. “My main driver for DIY and repurposing is cost,” he explains. “It’s much cheaper to buy a broken down e-bike or tractor … and harvest the components needed to build a project, rather than buying all the individual components brand new.”

Originally a student of mechanical engineering, Terpstra became interested in industrial design, or product design, after viewing his friends’ works at MIAD’s Senior Exhibition. “I found the coursework for mechanical engineering to be stale and uninspiring,” he says. “After attending [the MIAD Senior Exhibition] and seeing what industrial design was all about, I applied and started the next fall. To me, industrial design is engineering, but with personality.”

At MIAD, Terpstra appreciated a lack of rigidity in assignments that allowed out-of-the-box thinking and a variety of solutions to flourish. “Instead of strict rules and guidelines, there was just an end goal to achieve,” he says. During an egg-drop project, students built a device that could travel on two guide wires, pick up an egg and drop it into a cup. “Because of the freedom permitted, the approach classmates took varied greatly in functionality, construction and appearance,” says Terpstra. “It really showed [that] there is more than one way to crack an egg.”

Coming up next for Terpstra are several unique projects, including a scaled-down version of the Howe & Howe Technology’s RIPSAW vehicle and an “amusingly tiny, but hopefully still rideable” mini-mini pit E-bike. And in true Terpstra fashion, he is also working on a “remote-controlled, exhaust-powered harmonica. Why? Why not.”

Keep up with Chris on his YouTube channel, read more about the penn-E-farthing and learn more about MIAD’s Product Design major!


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