Old-School Foundation, New-School Shapes – CBJ Podcast with Mathieu Ackermann

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Mathieu Ackerman header image
Image by Climbing Business Journal; all photos courtesy of Mathieu Ackermann
Mathieu Ackerman header image
Image by Climbing Business Journal; photo courtesy of Mathieu Ackermann.

Today I talk to Mathieu Ackermann, who is one of the shapers at Flathold, the other creative mastermind there being Manuel Hassler, whose name you will hear mentioned in this episode as well. But back to Mathieu. He is a fascinating subject because his shaping at Flathold combines a love for outdoor climbing with some formal art training and education, and all with an open embrace of what Mathieu calls the new school style of climbing and shaping. And speaking of that new school style, if you watched the Bern World Championships, you saw the unveiling of some clear, no-texture holds from Flathold. They made huge waves in the comp climbing world. So Mathieu and I talk all about the creation of those clear, no tex-holds, and we talk about how Flathold wasn’t even sure if the IFSC would allow those holds to be used at the World Championships. There’s a cool little story there. So let’s jump into my conversation with Mathieu Ackermann at Flathold.

Thank you Approach and TRUBLUE for your support!
And thank you Devin Dabney for your music!


Timestamps

00:00 – Intro
02:39Mathieu’s Roots in Art
05:31Where Does Mathieu Find Inspiration?
07:37Approaching Hold Shaping as an Artist vs. Routesetter
10:08Goals of Shaping
12:08Paying Attention to Other Brands
15:26The Journey from Idea to Hold Sales
20:17Old School vs. New School Holds
23:52The Story Behind the Clear, No-Tex Holds
29:19Why Were the Holds Clear?
32:28Spray Paint, Just in Case
35:04Producing the Clear, No-Tex Holds on a Larger Scale?
36:11How do you continue pushing forward with more ideas?
43:25Where to Learn More
44:57Closing

Routesetter Bundle from Chalk Cartel

Transcript

BURGMAN: Mathieu Ackermann, thank you so much for hanging out on the Climbing Business Journal podcast, across borders, across oceans, the United States meeting France meeting the United States. It’s really nice to have you here.

ACKERMANN: Thank you. Thank you, too.

I was reading on the Flathold website when I was preparing for this conversation and your biography on there, it says that before joining Flathold, you were a student at an art school and you were working on developing a procedure where you could mold natural objects like rocks and trees. And I read that, and it sounded so interesting. So, before we even get into the hold shaping and the work at Flathold, can you tell me about that procedure, that idea that you had in school?

Yeah, sure. It’s a long time ago. But yes, I was student in an art school, and this is before I met my business partner, Manuel Hassler, who already was making holds, making shapes. And I didn’t really try to copy nature or stuff like that. And maybe our text is also pretty old on the Flathold website. But yeah, I was just starting climbing and I was just also learning how to mold in art school and doing some object, and I made some tests with clay and different stuff. And the idea was probably just like, I don’t know if you know the brand called Mimic, it’s probably a US brand. And it was not the time when you had this 3D scanner to scan a natural hold. And I was like, just teaching and learning climbing as well as art school. And I thought it would be cool to be inspired by nature and to take the basic of nature and find a way to duplicate nature in real holds. And then I met my business partner, Manuel, just by reading a small article in the city journals or really something small. And I contacted him through a friend who has his number and the money was already making shape. And finally this idea of copying nature was forgotten. Or, yeah, we just still are inspired by nature, but we didn’t really do this first basic idea to reproduce nature, like those Mimic, for example, now.

Yeah, now that you are at Flathold and you’re part of a team there, where do you draw your main inspiration from? If it’s not predominantly nature, where do those ideas come from?

I guess we are two shapers now, me and again, my business partner, Manuel. And probably it’s different for both of us. I will speak a bit from Manuel’s perspective, even if I’m not in his head, but I know he’s a strong, how do you say that, inspiration for me. And he’s an international routesetter, so I know that most of his inspiration and ideas comes from mostly the tool side of what you need as a setter, what would be cool to have. And it drove, I guess, all his shaper career. And on my side, I’m a setter, too, but just a national Swiss setter, so not so much experienced than Manuel. And I guess I’m a bit more inspired still by nature forms like trees, like plants. In the past, I guess we used a lot of these organic shapes, and I guess we continue to have a mix of organic shapes, but also focus on Manuel’s ideas and on the functionality of a hold. So, I think it’s a good mix between Manuel and I. Manuel the setter and me maybe trying to bring something different or more natural, organic stuff and it works well together.

“I am personally an outside climber, so I learned climbing from the rock and not from the gym,” Ackermann (pictured) says, noting his experience has allowed him to observe the evolution of holds in time, and routesetting in competition. (Image courtesy of Mathieu Ackermann)

That is exactly what I wanted to ask you in this conversation. One of the things I wanted to know was, since you do have an artistic background, formal training in art, like art school, education in art, do you approach hold shaping from the idea of being a routesetter, which you said you’ve done some setting, or do you approach it more of as an artist?

No, I think artist is a big word and I guess we are all artists in a way. And I never consider myself as an artist because I just made a bachelor’s in fine art. But then I had to work, so I didn’t continue like a real career. I just think these experiences in art school brought me some knowledge for shaping for example, because I touch different materials, I draw a bit and maybe also try to use it in the graphic design or stuff like that. More in the visual identity of Flathold than as an artist, like a shaper. I think you don’t need to make an art school or a shaping school to be a good shaper. I think the first step is to understand what is a climbing hold and it has a functionality. So, it’s maybe more, let’s say like a designer who could understand. But it’s interesting because it’s a big mix between being a routesetter or a climber. Understand what is a climbing hold, what you need for creating movement, and a mix with bringing some artistic side that you can take inspiration from different perspective, different origin and do it well or do it your way. And I think all the shaper has in all own style. So it can come from really different ideas and maybe mine comes from my background for sure. But it’s not necessary that you need to be an artist to be a shaper.

Is the goal, when you shape something, is the goal always the same? The goal is “okay, we want to create a shape that is new or is different,” or is the goal dependent on and maybe different depending on whatever shape you are working on?

It’s pretty difficult to do something new and something different now because there is many many competing brands. There is many holds that have been already done and at the end a crimp is a crimp, a pinch is a pinch and a sloper is a sloper. So when we start thinking a range of holds, we still think basic about this basic vocabulary, which is pinches, crimps, sloper, et cetera. So, I think then the idea of making something new or something different is always what we want as a shaper, but I think we are all inspired with other brands or with other stuff that we see. So, it’s always hard to tell “Ah, this is really new,” because we see that the market is going pretty far from what it was ten years ago. And I think every brand inspires another brand and every human being inspires another human being. And we see movies, we see nature, we see pictures, and I think this is what is interesting. You can take what you think inspiring to transform the vision you have for being a shaper.

CWA Summit Pre-Conferences

Yeah. I’m always curious to hear from shapers how much other brands are on their radar. Meaning, are they kind of operating almost like the closed-out artist, right, where they don’t want to pay attention to the other stuff that’s going on, they just want to focus on their own art project? Or is it the opposite, and they are hungry to see what everybody else is doing, to see what other companies are doing, and to kind of soak it all in and take inspiration from what other brands are doing? It sounds like maybe that’s the case at Flathold. You do really pay attention to what other brands are doing and what kind of shapes they’re creating.

Yeah, I think we are in the market, and we are interested about what is new and we watch the competition. Manuel is also setting with other brands. We saw the product, myself too. If I go to a gym, I see different product and different brands and it’s not like we are following everything to see. But yeah, if you are in the market, you can’t close your eyes and you can’t try to be blind. And sometimes it’s hard because you want to do your own stuff and sometimes you realize it’s close for another brand and you have to change the direction where you’re going to not be too close.

And I can’t talk about many other brands because I know many other shapers, but not personally. And the only one we know is Laurent Laporte from Cheeta, and he’s a close friend and we shaped together sometimes. And it’s pretty funny because when he came to our workshop or when we exchanged, he’s also like, oh, sometimes he doesn’t want to see the new stuff to avoid to be inspired. We want to try to have this freedom, but I think personally that it’s probably lying if you try to stay in your own workshop and you just close your eyes and just do something because you are inspired by something else. And we can see on the market everything that is done has a history. So, if you take like, I don’t know, the dual texture holds that we made, it was already something like that in the past. We were not the first to do dual texture holds.

And, yeah, we can be honest to say, “Yeah, were inspired. We saw the first dual texture holds somewhere else.” And I think it’s trying to take from the past to do something new. And this is what happened in art or in graphic design or in cinema and in many other artistic culture, I think.

Can you talk me through the process, the conversation that you have with Manuel? Okay, let’s say there is no hold. You don’t have anything yet, and one of you has an idea for a new hold. And then what happens after that? How long does it take for you to have conversations until you actually maybe shape the first prototype, in terms, and then how much tweaking is done with that prototype? I guess going from the very beginning of an idea to actually finally having a hold that is available for sale. What is that process like?

I think for us, it’s pretty natural, and we are not always shaping. So, it’s not like 100% what we do in the workshop. Manuel, on his side, is also setting, and we also developed many other stuff. So, we’re not making a meeting to discuss something. It’s more naturally like Manuel and I, we go on the foam, and sometimes you have an idea, you try something. It can be really fast, like, okay, I want to do like a couple of new volumes or try new holds. And sometimes it can take many years. We have old projects that are maybe three-year-old and they still are not born. So, it’s not that we have a process that we follow, like in a company where you have meeting, it’s more like spontaneously. And we like to keep this freestyle way of working and this freedom to just bring idea in the process.

Does it ever happen that there’s a phone call in the middle of the night where you call Manuel or he calls you and you know, you wake him up from sleep and you say, I just got this inspiration, I just got this idea. I have to tell you about it. If it is spontaneous, is it that quick?

It’s not in the middle of the night. But Manuel is a really creative guy in a way, for thinking about new process for climbing holds industry. And he’s mostly the guy who creates new stuff. I shape, but most of the time, the new idea or the new development comes from Manuel. And sometimes it can go in one night. In one day, he talks about something, and the day after he tries a small prototype and it works in the first day, but then it’s another world to finalize the product and to sell it. Because there is a big gap between having a creative idea. It can be like shaping a simple shape. This is maybe the fastest way, but in term of new development of new idea, to bring something different, there is a gap between when you have the idea and make the first prototype and when you sell the product or when it’s finished.

And most of the time, even for normal holds, I remember like I shaped the Damage Control holds that are one of the dual texture range from Flathold. And I remember it took so much time to make this shiny surface, to polish it. Shaping is pretty fast, but then doing the dual texture took me a long time. And after the molds were done and after I saw the first final product, it was maybe two years. And you just have the feeling that they are already old school because you are already doing something else. But the holds that you shaped two years ago, they just arrived on the market. And it’s just sometimes a strange feeling to have the feeling, “it’s not so cool. It’s old, it’s old school now.” But then finally when you climb on it, and it’s always a pleasure to see the final product and also to see that the people liked it or to see it in the gyms.

Elevate Climbing Walls

Speaking of this idea of new school holds versus old school holds, Flathold in particular seems like always in the conversation when you’re talking about this new school style of climbing, competition style climbing, where it’s very dynamic, very coordination heavy, a lot of parkour influence, all of that stuff. And there is, inevitably there’s sometimes a rift there with some people saying they love that style, and other people, maybe people that are more anchored in only the outdoor style of climbing. They say they don’t really like that modern competition style. How do you feel about it as someone who is at Flathold, and because of that, you’re so tied closely to this new school style. What do you think about that rift in opinions between the new school and the old school?

I am personally an outside climber, so I learned climbing from the rock and not from the gym. So, I really see the evolution of how evolves holds in the time and how evolves the routesetting and the competition. And we can also probably see in our old shapes, old range that it was more like this kind of old school shapes where you had to put one finger on a little stuff and it was more complex to hold. And it evolves to something more clean in term of shapes. And yeah, maybe this is a good example or comparison to what is also the competition climbing. It was maybe pretty complex and was more inspired about nature. The first competition, they were even outside, and then the climbing was like this endurance climbing. And now it evolves more to a way that people called parkour.

And personally, I also like to climb on old school stuff, and I like to see this. But I think the way that the competition climbing is going is probably like the way the shapes are going. It’s a process which is influenced in many ways. The holds, the shaper, the setter, the athletes. And altogether, I think we drive this transformation about climbing, but I don’t think that we choose for the setting perspective or the shaping perspective, or the athletes goes that way or the setter. It’s a big mix that creates transformation. And I personally like how it works, it goes. And it’s true that I’m also sometimes surprised, or I could imagine to see more old school boulder in a new school climbing circuit. But I think it depends about the setter and it will continue to evolve from competition to competition.

When we’re talking about this new school style, I think the epitome of that, in my opinion, is probably those clear no-texture holds that Flathold produced for the recent World Championships, 2023 World Championships in Bern. I don’t think they were the first holds ever to have no texture, but it was just kind of the whole package of them being clear, having no texture, being used at a competition of that magnitude, a competition that eventually, through the course of the seeding and the points and whatnot, would lead to an Olympic qualification portion and all that. So let’s talk about these no-texture clear holds. How did these come about?

Yes, I think it’s a good question and answer also in a way that you last question, because this is exactly a process. And this process came from – we have a friend who is a setter in your team. His name is Pierre Broyer, French setter, and he’s a good friend of Manuel. And both together they set many international competition or national training. And yeah, Pierre is pretty focused on this new school of climbing. And he was like not developing. He was just following this vibe of creating these dynamic coordination moves. And his idea, or the idea he wanted to explore and go ahead with was to this kind of campus move coordination. So, where you start without the foot and you have to make a swing to use the dynamic of your body and of this swing to continue to do many moves at the same time. And he started probably two years ago to take this idea, which was not his idea. It was already we saw for many competition. Like, I remember in Meringue, maybe five, six years ago, when Laurent and Manuel made this five-jump coordination. And Pierre just continued to explore this idea. And at the same time, he did also slab and many other styles, but it was his main focus. And he tried to put this move in many competition. And he told me, like, yeah, it works one time. How do you say that? One time on two? Or sometimes it missed, sometimes it works.

And when it didn’t work, it was because the climber, they usually stop in the middle of this dynamic coordination move. They can hold the swing and stop instead of continuing. And it was always a big challenge for him. And Manuel and Pierre talked together and they just realized after many competition and many tries, that they need to have really positive holds to be able to have the power and the dynamic to go far in the coordination move, but without the texture, because the texture always helped the athletes to stop on the holds in the middle or to do another beta, like a toe hook or heel hook or something like that. And Pierre just called us, he called Manuel and said, do you think there is a way to take an existing hold with texture, a good one, and to do it completely shiny?

And, yeah, Manuel just answers that. “Why not? Let’s try.” And we have a workshop where we can experiment. We have different machines, different stuff, and we have, for example, this kind of vacuum machine. And we thought, “yeah, why not?” To try to take an existing hold, in this case, Damage Control and Lucha Libre, and to vacuum it with a plastic just to make it slick. So, the idea of making it clear, transparent was not the first goal. The goal was to create a tool that will be useful for Pierre to go ahead and maybe finish this idea or to push this idea at his limit. And I think it was what happened, and it was the main idea that we explored together.

How and when did the idea of making it clear, how did that come to you? And did the potential or the possibilities that could come of that, was that part of it? Like, I know people were immediately saying, “Oh, these holds could light up or something at some point down the road.” There’s a lot that you can do with clear holds.

Again, this was not an intention to – we didn’t think about, “Oh, let’s do transparent holds. It will be cool.” We first thought about, we want to create a product that is useful for this idea of Pierre and these coordination moves. So, we just arrived to transparency. And firstly, we tried with a small plastic we had at the workshop, which was black, but it was too thin to use it. It was not strong enough. So, we had to keep it on the existing holds and try to test it to see how it feels. And surprisingly, were like…You take really good holds. We put it on the wall in 30 degree or 35, because we knew that for the idea of Pierre, it was the angle we need. And we realized if you put this hold completely horizontal, you can make a pull up, but if you just twist it for a couple of degrees on the left or on the right, it becomes really hard just to hang on it. And, yeah, it was how we realized that the idea can potentially work.

And then Manuel find a way to do a final product that we can use. And we needed something stronger and thicker. And we find recycled PET or PET plates that we use in this vacuum machine. You have to make it warm and then to suck the plastic on the hold. And, yeah, it just became to be a transparent holds. And this was also a problem because we knew for many months that were sponsoring in this event and in Bern, they had a code of colors. They wanted to keep the color of the holds the same than the identity they built. So, we just buy some spray for all the raw color that they need, because we thought they will put some color, and we just bring these holds for the setter to firstly create the idea. And then we thought they will probably spray it in a color; they will not accept to keep it like that. And finally, their organization, they thought, “Oh, why not? It’s interesting. It’s something new, it’s something different,” and this is how it happened.

image of clear holds in Bern world championships
“We didn’t think about, ‘Oh, let’s do transparent holds. It will be cool.’ We first thought about, we want to create a product that is useful for this idea of Pierre and these coordination moves. So, we just arrived to transparency,” Ackermann says about the clear holds pictured above. (Image courtesy of David Schweizer)

So, you really had spray paint cans in your equipment ready to spray the holds a certain color if the IFSC didn’t let you use the clear?

Yeah, yeah. I personally buy the spray cans with the good raw number, and we tested it in our workshop with black, and we thought it’s nice as well because it’s really shiny, and you spray it on the back so you can change the color. It becomes a bit different, but nice. But finally, without the setter, they didn’t want to, or they proposed this transparent color, and the organization, they said, “Yeah, it’s cool. It’s a nice problem.”

Trango Holds Pardners

Were you surprised that they accepted? I mean, I guess, are the organizers of the IFSC, are they usually maybe less open to that idea of a new, something different?

I was surprised because I had contact for many months to organize the choice of holds that we send as a sponsor. And I knew they are pretty picky with the colors. And I think it’s good. They wanted to make a clear identity. So, I really thought, no way, they will probably not accept. And this is why I buy these spray cans. But finally, they just thought it’s an interesting problem. It’s for the final and it’s for the show. And I think it also brings something unique because we made these holds as unique pieces. We made a choice of good holds. Manuel and Pierre made this choice. And then we had probably only eight holds that we tested in advance, and we knew that it will works for these moves, but we didn’t add so much holds, so we just came with this. And they are unique. And I think this is also why the organization, they like this idea to have something really special, something unique only for this event, and also something that is pretty fair for all the athletes because they never touch these holds and they never saw these holds. So, it was a surprise for everybody, I think.

Do you have any desire to produce them at some point beyond just those eight exclusive pieces, or is this something that you’d like to just forever keep as a World Championship exclusive?

I think we discuss about it with a producer because it was surprisingly pretty popular, or I think there were a lot of reaction about this holds, some like, some doesn’t like it. But yeah, we heard a lot of people who thought it’s cool. So, I guess the gym, they still need the color, the classic color to make the sequence they have. But probably we will make maybe just a limited edition of these holds or just a small batch because people ask at us and why not to make just limited edition about it.

I think of those holds as very, I guess, to use the artistic word, almost like postmodern, because you think they’re kind of the anti-style of traditional holds, because you think the old school style of a climbing hold, it would be something with color and something with texture, right. And shape as well. And these clear holds, it’s like, let’s take away the color and let’s take away all the texture. So, you’re sort of removing these two pillars of what people always kind of thought or conceptualized of what an artificial climbing hold was. And so I can’t help but wonder, how do you continue to push creatively? I guess, what is next once you take away the color and you take away the texture, that is so innovative? How do you continue pushing forward with more ideas?

On this theme, like transparent, shiny holds, the idea is probably not to continue to do something more extreme, to do invisible holds, you know, it was kind of mistake. And this mistake was just driven by the routesetting aspect and the movement that Pierre and Manu wanted to create. And, yeah, randomly it became to be a really special and nice product. And also, they choose the holds for the functionality of it in the movement, and they choose holds that are really good enough, have no thumb on it. And also randomly, it was our dual texture holds, like the Damage Control and Lucha Libre, and both have different texture. And what’s really interesting in these transparent holds as well is that the transparent PET, it took the texture of the holds. So, where there is texture, you can see inside the plastic that there is a kind of texture, but the texture is not where you feel it, on the other side, where you touch it; it’s just inside. And it creates a kind of strange mix between texture, transparency, and also between matte and shiny. So, it’s more kind of experimentation. And I think this is also the way we work. And sometimes you are inspired, or you discover something new by doing it for another purpose. You want to do something for the setting aspect, and it opens other door for creativity. And I don’t know because it was just last month that we did it. So just really, just before the competition. And, yeah, now we will see. We can explore. And this is what is good also in our workshop is that we have some machine, we try to explore in different way, and we try to keep our mind open and to see what comes next.

OnSite

Yeah, maybe that is the future. It sounds like it. Maybe to continue mixing the different elements of texture and color and surface and shape and all of that. Try to keep them less and less as separate entities and try to think, how can we further integrate all of these different elements together in new ways?

Yeah, but I think there is still, as I said earlier, like the gyms and the market has still some weight. And on our side, we never try to think about new shapes or developing new ideas based on what potentially the customer needs. We always thought, “Oh, we need this,” or “This would be interesting.” And sometimes it’s the opposite. The gym, they will never ask for transparent holds, but maybe now they see that. Why not? It could be something else. On my side, I don’t really like the color that we have in our industry, because I understand the way it works. And this is better to have clear, separate, bright colors. But if I would build a gym, I would personally try to do something else with other colors, other identity. There are so many nice colors on the raw palette that sometimes it’s a bit a shame to just stay with red, blue, yellow and black.

Maybe we will also try, or we have now a small set that we will also sell in a limited edition for the setter and just make a special color. And we know that this will be cool for the setter because they can probably use it in different way. But still, even in the like it was in Bern most of the time, the organizer, they ask for a range of color they want. Like in Germany, in Munich, they want the color of the flag. In USA, I think USA Climbing also has a palette of color, so we will try to put something else, and I know that also SoiLL, I like SoiLL, they use some kind of new colors in the catalog they have. And I think it’s interesting to bring something new in term of color and aesthetic. But I think the future of climbing is probably not based on color and transparency. It’s more about new ideas. We see now a lot of competitors and we do as well, like holds that you can combine and maybe the wall will be also more versatile that you can move in the future. There is all this wood volume that you can stack on each other. So, I think in terms of movement and setting experiences and climbing experiences, there is much more to do with new ideas than just new colors and transparent holds.

I love it. Mathieu, I really appreciate you taking some time to talk about this because now my mind is set on the future. The future of how holds could look, how they could evolve. And this is a really exciting thing to think about, especially now with shaping and holds getting arguably a bigger spotlight than ever with these big competitions with of course, Paris Olympics coming up. Before we get out of here, can you tell people if they want to know more about your work or Manuel’s work or Flathold, where is the best place for people to go to stay in touch and to follow all that Flathold is doing?

Yeah, I think the best way is to follow us on social media, even if we are not so, how do you say that, so prolific or we are not really focused on making everyday news. We try to keep it clean and when we have something to say, we publish it on Instagram mostly. And otherwise, we make some video about setting on our YouTube channel and I guess this is the way to see where other new stuff or the website.

Great, Mathieu, thank you so much. We’ll get you back on the next time Flathold surprises everybody and comes out with another cool design, another cool shape. We’ll get you on again to chat. Thank you so much.

Cool. Thank you too to invite us.

Thanks for checking out today’s episode, and thanks to Mathieu and Flathold for sharing some insights about the creative inner workings there. Be sure to give Flathold a follow on social media, and if you want to go back and watch the World Championships portion on YouTube that featured those clear no text holds, it was the men’s Boulder final round from 2023. Aside from all that, hit the like or subscribe button for this podcast if you want more episodes like this and follow CBJ on social media. Once again, I’m John Burgman. Thanks for listening.