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Functional Art

Can a bicycle frame be considered art? The term I always use is “Functional Art.” Anything manufactured whether it is made by hand or mass produced, can be considered functional art.

Furniture for example, a chair in order to serve its purpose has to be comfortable to sit in, but when it comes down to making a final choice, quality, and appearance will play a big roll. 

Aesthetics and function 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? Likewise, the beauty of a well-crafted bicycle is in the way it rides and handles 

When I built frames in England during the 1970s my customers were almost exclusively racing cyclists. They bought my bikes because they handled well and were reasonably priced. On moving to the US in 1979 and 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. 

To take this discussion one step further, does the individual craftsman or artist inject something of himself into whatever it is he is making? Does he breathe life into an inanimate object and give it a soul almost. How else does one describe a feeling?

A handmade musical instrument by a known and respected craftsman will feel different when played and sound better than a massed produced factory made item. How does one describe the difference? 

How do these qualities get into the musical instrument other than through the artist? Through his design and skill. I will go so far as to say 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 larger scale. 

The Navtive American sees mankind as part of Nature, not separate from it. There is nothing in Nature that is not beautiful. One can dive deep into the ocean and find beauty, or go to places where humankind rarely travels and find the same.

The only ugliness is man-made. Man builds a barn in a field and paints it red. It is an eyesore, a blight in 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 thirty 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 late 1990s did I realize that all creativity or art comes from one source only. Be it music, painting, or even bicycle frames.

To put it another way. Back in the 1980s when I was building frames, there were many import frames coming in from Italy and other parts of Europe, as well as Japan. These would be built in factories, usually by a team of builders. One would braze bottom brackets, another head lugs and son on.

Some would be more conscientious than others, but to most it was just a job, a pay check.  Does it strain the imagination too much to see that frames built in this manner can never consistently measure up to those built by an individual builder, whose life passion is framebuilding, and his reputation rests on every frame.

I am just putting forward my thoughts and ideas. Not trying to convert anyone to my way of thinking. If you disagree that is fine, and I would be pleased to hear your point of view.


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Reader Comments (13)

Good one Dave. I have never considered anything regarding building or riding bikes to be an ART. But it seems its the thing these days to call almost everything and ART of some kind?? I spent several years of my young life going to the Moseley School of Art in Brum England from age 11 to age 16 when I became an apprentice to the Brum sculptor Bill Bloye. then into the RAF at 18 for two years. I worked on many statute's and carved coat of arms on building so I guess I was an artist sculptor of some kind. BUT I never even thought that someone working with metal tubes and lugs etc was an ARTIST!! How artistic and creative can you get brazeing welding or what ever together a bunch of tubes? an ART?? Maybe British vintage bike builders like Hetchins Bates Moorson Gates etc who did something a little different ARTIST?? interesting!

December 19, 2016 | Unregistered Commenterjohn Crump

Google 'ART what is it' Very interesting. Things I have never thought about I have always wondered, as a racing cyclist, how can two or more builders, that have the same material, using the same angles, measurements etc make a frame and forks that does not ride and handle the same? Where is the magic? what makes one better than another if they are? I am talking about ride quality NOT looks.

December 19, 2016 | Unregistered Commenterjohn Crump

There are many objects in our lives that fall into functional art, from a toaster to a fountain pen.
But for many of these objects there is a separation between the art parts (case or body) and the functional part.
You won't see a frame used strictly as art, but the decorative features are integral with its function.
Of course this works both ways, I have an older frame that I love to ride. It sill works perfectly buy it is profoundly unattractive. You can make a statement both ways.

December 19, 2016 | Unregistered Commenteredstainless

With any skill it is repartition that makes one better. A framebuilder who has many years’ experience and has built thousands of frames, will build a better frame than someone starting out. Not only that, he will do it quicker.

However, just as a beginner musician will not tell the difference between a hand built guitar and a factory built one. It would also take an experienced and fit bike rider to really tell the difference between two bicycle frames. He would need the ability to push both bikes to the limit.

When it comes to “Art,” there is pure art for its own sake, and then there is “Functional” Art which can be almost anything. A suspension bridge for example serves a purpose, but also can be pleasing to the eye.

On the subject of “What is an Artist,” as opposed to a craftsman. To me an artist creates something original, even if it is a variation on someone else’s creation, like a bicycle or musical instrument.

December 19, 2016 | Registered CommenterDave Moulton

Funny, thinking back on the old days of steel bikes (which I love). Winning magazine (if anyone remembers that) had monthly photo spreads of bikes that were virtually identical - made of either Columbus SL or Reynolds 531 with Cinell BB; generally outfitted in Campy Super Record, Clement tubulars and Cinelli stem/bars. Beneath the surface you couldn't see was the real quality - how expertly the brazing and mitering was. But on the surface, the only thing that distinguished them was the paint job and decals. Colnago, Guerciotti, Pogliaghi, Bianchi, and of course Dave Moulton and Fuso. It was the graphics that made the bike. A few bikes like the Rigi with its double seat tube, or the Alan with its bonded aluminum, or the early Kleins, were markedly different.
These days, with Carbon, the ability to create a uniquely different frame is apparent outside, but maybe less so within. Great looking outside, but maybe lacking the prestige a great individual builder like Moulton, Sachs, Serotta or select others brought.

December 20, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterEd

all creativity or art comes from one source only

I feel like I missed a main point -- are you saying this is "Nature"? or maybe "God"?

December 20, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterRubeRad

The moment I say "God" someone will argue there is no God, but no one can say there is no Nature, we can see and touch it all around us. Intelligence at work. I believe this Intelligence is our intelligence. I like to keep an open mind, but the problem with keeping an open mind, people will try to put stuff in it.

December 20, 2016 | Registered CommenterDave Moulton

The noun Artist is used too loosely today, and is often attached to those just doing their job. A frame builder is not an artist, he is a craftsman that has learned a trade, and has developed his skill to make a frame that can be traded for money. The term “Functional Art” is used to command more money, or perhaps respect, for the frame and the frame builder. But I wonder if a rare Persian rug that is used to hold a treadmill in place would more aptly be called Functional Art?

Or, when Picasso turned bullhorn handlebars and a leather saddle, all functional items, into an art piece, what is that called?


December 22, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterSteve


this article puts into perspective the user's point of view. If people come to believe that a functional object has magical properties then for them it will have. Before branding was a thing, word of mouth did the work. In popular usage, it seems to me that the word artistry has moved away from the word artist. I was in Stratford-onAvon yesterday, and to quote a long-dead local "what's in a name?"

William Morris is famous for questioning the aesthetics of the machine-made versus hand-made and I suspect this is the root of a lot of snobbery in cycling. The right provenance, can give value to something ordinary. In this Philosopher's Arms programme (BBC radio) they explore our reaction to real versus fake http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b01lsyrh

And finally here is the first kinetic sculpture https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bicycle_Wheel

Art is what you say it is.

December 23, 2016 | Unregistered Commenterpeter

Moseley School of Art, hang on...
One I saw the other day; John Crump may be interested.

December 23, 2016 | Unregistered Commenterpeter

Peter. Thanks for the posting. My old school is no more. Love the bike!!! I did go past the building last year and it is sorry shape. The baths across the street that I spent many happy cold hours in are still there also in sorry state. Happy and Merry Christmas to all on Dave fab blog.

December 24, 2016 | Unregistered Commenterjohn Crump

Interesting subject.
Let me recommend you a book: "Zenn and the Art of Motorcycle maintenance", by Robert M. Pirsig.
It carries a good amount of thoughts about the " Methaphisic nature of quality" (as someone put it) A nice read

Greetings from Barcelona

February 21, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterAleix

Most people can recognize the art involved into the design of a beautiful guitar. But can a synthesizer be considered art? To most people, it can't be an art piece, and I agree: it's just a workman's tool.

On the other hand, the piano is a different beast. You can have a first-rate Yamaha and it will perform as well as the best. But it's no match to a custom Steingraeber & Söhne that adds a stunning appearance to its top-notch sound and action:

There's also a big difference between a common cake and the elaborate ones made for fastuous weddings. They all are delicious, but there's no doubt an added dimension that goes beyond the intended utilitarian value of the product.

Whether it's a bicycle, musical instrument, or cake, the difference between mundane and stunning lies in the pride shown on the finished work. It is not the same when a product is made by workers doing it for a salary or by craftsmen willing to flaunt their ability to the world.

May 18, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterAlexander Lopez

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