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Monday
Jun222009

The March of the Machines

Just about any manufactured item can be described as Functional Art; designed not only to do what it is supposed to do, but to look appealing also.

If you are choosing between two models of cell phones, you are most likely going to pick the one that looks cool; all other things being equal.

When I built bicycle frames in England during the 1970s my customers were almost exclusively racing cyclists. They bought my bikes mainly because they handled well and were reasonably priced.

On moving to the US in 1979 I saw that framebuilders paid a great deal of attention to detail and finish of the product, because their customers were swayed by aesthetics as much as what was beneath the paint.

However, aesthetics and function must go hand in hand; hence the term Functional Art. If someone made a musical instrument that looked beautiful but sounded awful; what use would it be apart from something to hang on the wall and look at? The beauty of a well crafted bicycle is in the way it rides and handles.

How did these qualities get into the bicycle frame other than through the builder? Through design and skill, which is why I have often said there is a part of me in every frame I built. Also when you practice a skill long enough it becomes second nature; automatic without conscious thought.

This is not a new notion; the Native American called this “Hand Magic.” Nature bringing something into creation through the artist’s hands. When an ant colony builds an ant hill, is this any different from man building his cities and roadways; just on a different scale.

The Native American sees mankind as part of Nature, not separate from it. There is nothing in Nature that is not beautiful, the only ugliness is manmade.

Man builds a barn in a field and paints it red. It is an eyesore, a blight on the environment. Given time the barn becomes derelict; Nature takes over and the barn becomes a thing of beauty. Photographers come to photograph it; artists come to capture it on canvas.

If the artist is connected to the creative source in the first place then his creation will be beautiful to begin with. It is not even necessary for the artist to be aware of this. When I built frames some twenty years ago, had anyone put forward this point of view to me, I would have said they were full of crap.

It was only towards the end of my framebuilding career in the early 1990s did I realize that all creativity or art comes from one source only; be it music, painting, or even bicycle frames.

Bicycle frames are no longer hand built; they are designed and manufactured like everything else. That is not to say they are inferior from a functional standpoint, they may even perform better. And as for aesthetics, well they are smooth and shiny, what more can you ask for, or expect.

Looking back, it seems to me that what the customer demands of the craftsman making a hand built item, is a look of perfection. As if it came out of a mould, or was made by machine. When the craftsman attains this, the machines take over.

Automobiles were once built by hand, and yet the finest craftsman, hand beating an auto body panel, could never produce a modern body panel. One that is stamped by a die that was machined by a computer controlled piece of equipment.

As for function, the modern robot built automobile will outperform its hand built counterpart of yesteryear. The robots are of course built by skilled engineers, but once built work for a lot less than individual craftsmen.

Items still have to be initially designed by someone creative, an artist. However, with the computer being the modern day design tool of choice, and from there going to the programmer of the machines and robots. I'm not sure where the "Hand Magic" comes into the equation.

It appears the hand of the craftsman has been bypassed completely. But that is progress, the march of the machines

 

Reader Comments (11)

Really nice blog Dave. In the past I had always been amazed and envious of the latest carbon fiber frames and bikes but for the last few years my eyes have always rested on the best handmade usually steel bikes that I see new and vintage. keep up the posts.

Simon

http://www.lagazzettadellobici.blogspot.com

June 22, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterSimon Lamb

"The Native American sees mankind as part of Nature, not separate from it. There is nothing in Nature that is not beautiful, the only ugliness is manmade."

But if mankind is part of nature...

I'm confused.

June 22, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterChris

Chris,
You have hit the nail on the head. Mankind in general does not see himself as part of Nature; he sees himself as separate, even above nature. He is not connected to the one creative source and creates at best, mediocre art, or at worst downright ugliness.
Dave

June 22, 2009 | Registered CommenterDave Moulton

I think that the biggest issue here is the lack of 'soul' in most modern products. There is no emotion in mass produced items. We don't form emotional bonds to them in the way that we do when things are created by humans.

Nowdays it is not just the manufacture if products that takes place by machines, but the design itself is all done on computer, and checked for efficiency, cost effectiveness and a million other factors, even before the first prototype is made. We've added another layer of abstraction.

Look at the Campag Delta brakes from the 80's, they are inherintly inefficient, and no machine would ever have created them, yet they are utterly gorgeous. You want to touch them and hold them. They have an allure because they have a 'humaness' to them.

The personality of the maker always comes through in hand made or hand designed objects, regardless of the makers desire to create something perfect, and that is what allows us to fall in love with craft.

June 22, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterAndrew

The Hand magic is in the hands of more people now. The guy that can make a computer do backflips, writing the CAD software. The artist that can work the brush, sketching, extruding, milling, and punching the shapes on the computer screen. The mold or die maker that designs and builds the mold from the design in a computer and pieces cut by a computer controlled machine. There are many levels of hand magic now, just as the guy who figured out how to draw butted steel tubing was doing his magic from which you did yours. Layers of magic. Is the artist's brush any less a work of art?

Chris, I recall a Frank Zappa song that heads down the same path. "Dumb all over"

June 22, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterRob

I think this is why great craftsmen like Richard Sachs and Sacha at Vanillia Cycles have 5 year waiting list. And no one bitches about it.

June 22, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterTom

But I like red barns.

June 22, 2009 | Unregistered Commentertheguth

Andrew, it's funny you mentioned those Campy Delta brakes, because it harkens to what Dave said regarding function and art: beautiful pieces of art that weren't worth a darn on a bicyce. It's a shame he couldn't stop in time to prevent the accident, but aren't those wonderful looking brakes? I simply think that we, as Americans, speak out of both sides of our mouths: we want handcrafted goods, whatever they might be, but want them to cost as little (or less) than their asian counterparts.

I will say this, however: attend a North American bike builders show and you will see that the love of handmade bicycles has not met its demise. I still marvel at how these frame builders can make money. It truly is a labor of love.

June 22, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterMaltese Falcon

I rather think it's a kind of popular regression rather than progress, part of the overall de-civilization were are all living in.

Better bearings and other mechanical components that require less maintenance is progress, better braking is progress, the quick release hub and the derailleur were progress. stainless steel spokes were progress over ones that rusted easily. High-quality clincher tires are progress. Ergo shifters might be considered progress, and maybe we can include indexing too (although I don't think they were necessary improvements, myself). Maybe automatic pedals are progress over toe clips with straps and cleats.

But I don't think the current frame shapes are progress, and carbon fibre frames and components aren't really progress, because they don't change anything fundamental about the experience of riding a road bicycle.

All this so-called progress is mostly fashion - the transformation of road bikes into fast mountain bikes with narrow tires. To have everything made by machines is not progress, it's a cheapening of humanity, a selling out to the imperatives of mercantilism. We have been indoctrinating and dumbing down a couple generations of people now, and they are prepared to accept cheapness in a way that previous generations were not. As longs as something can be made cheaply by machines or slave labour in another country, we are all prepared to rationalize it as being improvement.

June 23, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterPierre

I agree with Rob above. There is Hand Magic. You just have to walk into a bicycle company these days to see how its done. March of the machines is an inevitable outcome of business and the forces of production. If you think in a business way, it is hard to compete these days with pre-historic traditions when your neighbour is producing the same stuff for possibly a third of the coin you put into it using advanced production processes.

June 25, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterRon

I consider today's bike frames to have come about from the same business practices and forces of production that have given us tomatoes and other foods that look great but have no taste. They are to bicycles what McDonald's is to real food. Unfortunately, the masses have lost the ability to tell the difference.

July 2, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterPierre
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