Katcha Bilek: Wheels of fortune, bags of style

Katcha Bilek: Wheels of fortune, bags of style

Deco heads to Bristol to meet an independent designer who's putting tyres, wheels and inner tubes to good use

Katcha designed this crocodile toy from old tractor tyres

Katcha Bilek loves bicyles, bags and doing her bit to keep materials out of landfill. She's finding growing success with her range of bags made from rubber inner tubes, is moving into furniture design, and, with young children, she finds time to design fun toys for playgrounds, such as Croc.

It's perhaps not surprising that Katcha Bilek, designer and purveyor of funky inner tube fashion accessories, loves bicycles and all their component parts: she grew up in Holland and spent her childhood pedalling everywhere.

Bilek is making a name as a designer of hard-wearing, hand-made bags that are both fashionable and eco-friendly; they're made from the inner tubes of tractor wheels which are no longer up to the job they were made for, with straps that were once car seat belts. But she's also moving into furniture design, taking discarded bicycle wheels and signage from shops as her core materials.

Boneshaker, a prototype light fixutre made from bike wheels and circuit boards
Tables and bookcase made from bicycle wheels and discarded store signage
A hand-made Katcha Bilek laptop bag, made from tractor inner tubes. From £65
Glam rock style Imma women's bag, £65

'I'm not interested in exclusivity, I want to be inclusive, which means I want to make products that people can afford,' says Bilek, whose bag business has moved from being a cottage industry to being an office-based industry. 'Yes, I do now have an office and I'm taking people on to help me because we're growing quite fast now. I started making the bags in 2008 and sales have doubled year-on-year, which is great.'

A Katcha Bilek bag, whether a glam rock ladies' handbag or a sturdy laptop/manbag, costs between £65 and £75 bag. Her clientele like the fact that the bags are made from the discarded inner tubes of tractor tyres, with straps made from old car seat belts, yet they don't look worthy - rather they're ultra fashionable.

So why inner tubes? 'Well, I was brought up to hate throwing things away, my family are definitely of the make-do-and-mend mentality. I travelled around Europe a lot and we'd be living on the road, and stopping to change a tyre and I'd start thinking about what you might possibly do with inner tubes. And I thought how much more pliable and easy to work with rubber is than leather, that it's flexible and won't perish, so I started to make some handbags.'

She sources her inner tubes from Somerset, so she keeps her carbon footprint down, but does lament that they're available only in black. 'It's a pity they don't make them in other colours.. so we are limited to black for the bags. That said, I am looking into other plastics and colours, so that may change.'

Colourful belts made from bicycle tyres
Bilek's Croc playground apparatus is made from tractor tyres

A self-taught prop-maker ('I'm quite arty and would find myself being asked to make installations out of discarded materials at rock festivals' ), a natural progression has been to start foraying into furniture design..which is where bicycles have come into play. 'Yes, the bicycle wheel, or more specifically the rims, which are good for circular tables. And I've used glossy signage thrown out by KFC for the tops. Shops are re-fitted fairly often, which means what's in them is thrown away, so I'll look out for materials and see what I can do with them.'

Bilek is no refuse magpie, however, and she stresses that she chooses materials carefully. She doesn't relish calls she occasionally gets from people who summon her to come and collect the entire contents of their garden shed, in a tone that suggests they're doing her the favour.  'And it annoys me when I'm offered buckled wheels.. I cannot do anything with a buckled wheel!' she laughs. 

Bilek says what motivates her is the challenge of transformation. 'I like to design product which is aesthetically pleasing, and affordable. And I'm passionate about recycling. I'm defininitely more about recycling than upcycling.'