Materialism is Dead; Long Live Materialism: A Workshop Visit with Saffron Frameworks

In this shop visit with Saffron Frameworks in London, UK, Sam Rice traces a line from Matthew Sowter’s previous life as a chef to his current trade as one of the most awarded frame builders in the world. Matthew’s skill in transforming basic ingredients into magnificent dishes transfers over into his ability to turn a box of tubes into a frame deserving of the word “perfection.” Materialism may be a concept of the past, but it is very much alive in Matthew Sowter’s craft.

First introduced in the 1600s, the term ‘materialist’ was coined as a term of great reverence – more akin to what we might consider an artisan today. Materialists were masters of their craft, students of their art form, vanguards of industry. From carpentry and metallurgy to masonry and apothecary, they were the technologists of the 17th century. Shaping stone into structures for safety, warmth, and community. Forging iron into armor and weaponry for protection and power. Put simply, materialists built the modern world.

Fast forward to today and our relationship with materials has drastically changed. Our global knowledge and infinite connections mean we can produce at a rate our ancestors could barely comprehend – and capitalism demands it. We’ve benefited from the surge of the Industrial Revolution. We are living with the effects of mass production on quality, design, and longevity, and—at a time when our collective culture feels more aligned with fast fashion, social status, and greedy shareholders—the need for materialists is greater than ever.

Last summer, I went to meet Matthew Sowter, founder of Saffron Frameworks. Established in 2010, his bespoke one-off steel frames are among the very best on the planet, earning him countless awards and accolades the world over. A materialist at heart, Matthew has lived at the intersection of alchemy and artistry his whole life. Today, you’ll find him in a converted London industrial unit, sprinkled with swarf and wielding a brazing torch, but in a previous life, his weapons of choice were cast iron skillets and spatulas.

From Filet Mignon to Fillet Braze-On

Before Saffron, Matthew spent 15 years as a Chef de Cuisine (Head Chef) at some of the most prestigious fine dining restaurants on the planet. Cooking was a form of expression, a creative outlet, and at times, an addiction. It unlocked the world and saw him man the stoves at restaurants across London, France, Holland, South Africa and even aboard a superyacht in the Mediterranean. “When I first started cooking, it was the freedom and creativity in food that inspired me most. I was obsessed with the art of cheffing. The process of taking simple, everyday ingredients and transforming them into something extraordinary,” Matthew effuses as he casually flicks on the kettle and offers me a cuppa.

But beneath the glam veneer, cheffing was taking a toll on Matt’s health, happiness, and connection to the wider world. “I loved cooking. But I hated the aggressive, high-stress environment a commercial kitchen demanded. And as the years rolled on, I grew more and more disillusioned with it all until eventually, I spiraled into a depression and decided to quit cheffing altogether,” he tells me, sipping on his tea before resting it down. Lost, uninspired and seeking connection, Matthew rekindled his passion for bikes and sought a kind of therapy in the pedals. “I found that when I was riding and racing my bike, I felt free, uncluttered and creative again,” he says.

But the real catalyst for Matthew to pick up the torch was an interview he read in 2009 with the American-Italian frame builder Darren Crisp. “The way in which he described his relationship to both the materials themselves and to the needs of the riders captivated me. The nuance of these relationships and the interplay between object, maker, and rider made me realize that frame building offered what I was searching for: connection.”

Fast forward to today, 1000+ frames have passed through Matthew’s hands and he’s one of the most celebrated frame builders in the UK. That deep sense of connection to material and rider still underscores every bike, interaction, and experience at Saffron Frameworks.

Art & Alchemy: The Saffron Way

Step inside the Saffron workshop and you first notice how closely the space mirrors the brand. Crisp, bright, and functional. A minimal mix of white-painted bricks, exposed wood, and full-length windows bathe the space with warm, summer light. If it wasn’t for the industrial-sized turret mill and racks of tools, you’d be forgiven for thinking it was a trendy South London art gallery.

As I watch Matthew move around the space, oscillating from mitering tubes to skillfully fillet brazing a BB shell, it suddenly dawns on me: just like the fine dining restaurants he grew up in, Matthew isn’t just simply building bikes here; he’s taking the tradition of framebuilding and injecting it with an inspired modernity that’s unique to him.

Unlike many framebuilders in the UK, Saffron doesn’t offer set models or component build options to customers; every frame is individual and one-off, a direct result of the relationship between rider and maker. It’s through this relationship that each bike is built to the exact needs of the individual – from analyzing riding style, preferred terrain, comfort needs, and individual kinesthetics, to dialing in the bike’s overall performance characteristics, tube set choices, and final paint finish. “Ultimately, I’m striving to build their perfect bike; a bike that both signifies their individuality, and celebrates their love of riding,” Matthew explains to me.

Take a look at the Saffron back catalog and you’ll see Matthew has designed an array of bikes using diverse construction methods, from hand carved, bi-laminate lugged road bikes to TIG welded single speeds. However, these days Matthew prefers to fillet braze in silver and almost exclusively works with stainless steel.

A relative newcomer to the world of framebuilding, stainless steel tube sets were first launched in 2007 and have much to offer a framebuilder: a high level of corrosion resistance, strength, and weight on par with titanium, but with the unique elongation properties and the flex of steel. “As a custom bicycle designer, working with stainless steel gives me complete freedom to fine-tune the characteristics of each bike I build,” Matthew tells me. “I like to mix and match tube diameters, profiles and sometimes use different materials to create a range of characteristics that suit the overall need of the rider,” he says, as he walks over to a finished frameset, unwraps it, and places it on the bench.

“Take this frame for example: here I’ve used Columbus XCR for the main outline, Columbus HSS (with its unique D-shaped profile) for the top and down tubes, and a carbon seat tube in our signature ISP format (integrated seat post) to bring it all together.” My eyes widen as a million questions swirl around my head. But after a few minutes with the master, it all makes sense: each specific tube and material brings a new dimension to the bike. The XCR provides the necessary stiffness to ensure riders aren’t wasting precious watts. The carbon seatpost, filament wound to Saffron’s exact elongation specs provide the comfort riders seek on long rides with plenty of road chatter, and the HSS tubes bring torsional strength when twisting and grinding up tough climbs. A unique blend of materials, working together in harmony to create the perfect ride.

A Modern Day Materialist

Before building frames, Matthew was obsessed with the art of cheffing: the process of going down to the source to understand each ingredient, intimately. He built a career by manipulating tastes and textures, surprising diners with unique flavor combinations and well-balanced plates. His food broke rules, created new ones, and enabled him to cook in some of the most prestigious restaurants in the world.

Today he channels that same creativity, rigor, and sensitivity into each frame he produces under the Saffron moniker. Every element on the bike, like each ingredient on the plate, has intention and purpose. A finely tuned balance of aesthetic beauty and examined functionality. The goal? To produce bikes far greater than the sum of their parts. Bikes that pay homage to the classic techniques and materialists of the past, whilst celebrating the creativity, alchemy, and modernity found in every Saffron frameset.

A huge thank you to Matthew for inviting me into the space and for teaching me so much. It’s a privilege to showcase your bikes and champion the relentless detail you put into everything you produce.