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« Siblings | Main | R. Brian Baylis 1953 – 2016 »

Art and Function

I love when a comment on one of my blog posts gives me food for thought, and better yet subject matter for another article. Steve wrote such a comment on my last tribute to Brian Baylis. He stated:

A bicycle, isn’t a piece of art, but something you ride. Because really, no frame builder builds all the components hung on his frame: wheels, tires, saddles, cables, brakes, derailleurs et al.

It is, in the end, a simple device envisioned hundreds of years ago as a means of moving men (yes, it was envisioned by men for men). So really, how much time should one spend building a frame, when all its components are produced by someone else?

(See the complete comment on my previous post.) 

So is a bicycle art or just something you ride? Well, yes and no. There is pure art, objects that serve no practical purpose other than to be pleasing to the eye. To live a life without art would be a pretty bland existence.

I am not a material person by any means. I do not place much importance on stuff, but I do have pictures on my walls, and a few pieces of handmade pottery around. They bring me pleasure, and my life and my home would be missing something if they weren’t there. That is the only purpose of these art objects.

Everything ‘man-made’ whether handmade or mass produced, is either pure art, completely practical, or mostly what I call ‘Functional Art.”

Because given a choice between two objects of equal performance and price, one will choose the one more pleasing to look at.

Furniture is a good example of functional art. A chair has to be comfortable to sit in, but also needs to be pleasing to look at, because it becomes part of the décor of our homes, along with the pictures on the wall.

There are degrees of function and art in functional art, and when one takes over from the other the product often suffers one way or another. But it all comes down to what the consumer or owner of the object wants, and what he can afford or is willing to pay.

When a chair becomes a piece of pure art, it may be uncomfortable to sit in, or too fragile for everyday use, and one might ask, what use is it.

If it brings pleasure to its owner just to look at it, that is its purpose. I would not criticize anyone for owning such a chair, or the person who made it.

So is a bicycle frame any different? I got into building frames to build a better bicycle. One that rode better, handled better, and was more comfortable. My customers in the UK were almost 100% racing cyclists. The bike was needed to compete in bike races, it sold because it was functional and the price was right.

When I came to the US I had to up the ante on my finish work because that is what the American consumer demanded. The bikes did not lose any of the ride or handling qualities, but I did reach a point where people began to say, “This is too beautiful to race, I will be afraid to crash it.”

This annoyed the hell out of me. I had been forced to move towards pure art in order to stay competitive, then the bike was no longer practical as a racing bike, because it was too fine and too expensive.

That is why I moved away from the pure custom frame to the limited production model like the Fuso. A Fuso will handle exactly the same as one of my super expensive customs, but the price was reasonable, and the degree of finish was acceptable to the people who wanted a piece of art.

On Steve’s point that the framebuilder only makes the frame, not the complete bike. It has always been that way. Even today, companies like Trek and Cannondale, design and produce a frame only, then assemble it with the same components as everyone else. And the bicycle always takes on the name of the frame builder or manufacturer. It becomes a Trek bicycle, or a Dave Moulton, a Fuso or a Brian Baylis bicycle.

Even lower end bicycles are built this way. The only exception I know to this was Raleigh Industries, in Nottingham, England. They had a huge factory that made everything. They had different thread standards, and even different rim and tire sizes, so if you bought a Raleigh bike, you were forced to buy spare parts and even tires from Raleigh. They went out of business some years ago, and I don’t know of anyone manufacturing the whole bike anymore.

To sum up, I believe there is room for art and room for function, and when you can successfully combine the two you have the best of both worlds. I never spent as much time building a bicycle frame as Brian Baylis, but I did spend a year and a half writing a novel. Was that a waste of time? You tell me, because I often wonder about that myself.


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Reader Comments (15)

Re: Steve's comment. I tend to ignore statements like that, so absolute about something as subjective as art. Other people don't get to decide for me what is, or isn't, art. That being said, I do agree with your assessment about functional art Dave.

February 29, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterPhil Strong

Art ranks right up there on the subjectivity scale. How many times have we heard "Beauty is in the eye of the beholder."? That said, I consider my Fusos functional art (as Dave described it); they are a successful marriage of art and function at the hands of an artist/artisan. While I may display mine on stands in my home, I receive even more pleasure being out on the road (or dirt) using them as their creator intended.

February 29, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterHaffassa Tempt

Can you elaborate a little on the unpainted lug shown? Did he fillet braze two tubes together then carve a lug from scratch? And how exactly might he have achieved that seat stay cap treatment?

February 29, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterBR

Well you are welcome Dave, my friend!

Isn’t it strange, that back in the day, it was custom builds that drove the price of bikes higher, but today, it is mass production that has driven the cost of cycling sky-high. How Ironic.

In 1979 I could buy a new, Campy-equipped Italian racing bike for $350. Today, a crankset sells for more than $350. I couldn’t afford one of your custom frames when I took the U.S. Olympic Committee to your shop in San Marcos, in 1984, but I was fortunate to find one 25 years later, at about the same price it sold for in 1984.

My point is, at what time in (recent) history were bikes seen as art (functional or decorative)? I don’t remember any custom builders (nor any riders I knew) in So Cal viewing their bikes as art pieces…Custom frames were nice, but most certainly they were ridden, and we didn’t think about preserving them forever.


March 1, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterSteve

Form, Fit, and Function. All three matter in design.
I like your analogy to furniture, there has to be a balance.
I have a bike that is somewhat flashy, and I selected it largely because of how it looks (of course it performs well also). I also own a bike that is very plain, to the point of that being an aesthetic statement also.
Not all of my shirts are blue and my shoes are of various styles. The same goes for bicycles.
I am one that has never been afraid to chip the paint. In fact recently I passed on buying an older frame that had been repainted. I understand touch-up and repair, but I want the original feel if I am dealing with older equipment.
Let Steve keep riding his soulless carbon frames with no individuality or personality. I'll keep riding steel frames that reflect the personality of the builder.

March 1, 2016 | Unregistered Commenteredstainless

As I said previous I had the pleasure of riding my bike alongside Brian a few tears ago.He riding of course a Bayliss frame fork bike. I later did see several of his frames and forks in the show that week end. I was very impressed with his attention to detail The fancy fine cut lugs and the pastel like colours that he used. I have always liked fancy schamcy lugs on my bikes and have them on the Mercian that I built in 2003. BUT I have to admit Dave. That the Fuso I saw on the Bike trail in Parker a few days ago. A light mauve like colour,had your signature fine cut lugs, very impressive, in my mind as fine as any that Brian did.

March 1, 2016 | Unregistered Commenterjohn crump

I fairness to Steve I know for a fact he rides a steel frame built by Russ Denny. I wrote about it here: http://davesbikeblog.squarespace.com/blog/2014/6/24/new-fuso-back-to-the-future.html
And in answer to Brian's question, I would imagine Brian Baylis fitet brazed the tubes first and then filed the shape after. This is an old school method that English framebuilders used back in the 1950s and before. It was known as Bilamination. Harry Rensch of Paris Cycles did some beautiful Bilamination work on his Galibier frames. I wrote about that here: http://davesbikeblog.squarespace.com/blog/2008/5/2/the-paris-galibier-frame.html
The seatstay top on the Baylis frame is a solid cap filed to shape, and the pointed tip bent to follow the curve of the lug.

March 1, 2016 | Registered CommenterDave Moulton

Probably a stupid question, but for the beautiful kind of joint pictured in the seat cluster above, how are the cut ends of the seatstays filled to make that lovely scalloped shape?

March 1, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterRubeRad

Filed, not filled. (Or was that a typo.) It is a solid steel plug brazed or silver soldered into the top end of the seat stay, then filed with a round file. You can file a piece of steel to any shape, All it takes is skill, and a lot of time.

March 2, 2016 | Registered CommenterDave Moulton

I recently learned that! A few weeks ago I tried to file the lawyer lips off my steel fork, maybe I don't have the right kind of file, but I quickly gave up and resorted to my dremel with a cutoff disc to grind it off.

March 2, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterRubeRad

Steve Potts mentioned how he got into frame building and making everything in this interview. I'm sure plenty of exceptions but fun to watch it again for any reason. From TPC Museum Series, really nice little interviews.

March 2, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterDavid

I recently learned that.

March 9, 2016 | Unregistered Commenterbaby bottles

I know Raleigh was a vertical company, in that they made all or most of the components for their bicycles. What about the French Constructeurs like Rene Herse? If I am not mistaken many of their bikes had the majority of the components made by the builder.


March 13, 2016 | Unregistered Commenter2whls3spds

In reference to manufacturers who built complete bikes, Zeus-a Spanish company that borrowed much from Campagnolo-built complete bikes. They seemed to have been more of a component company, but branched out at some point into frame building as well.

May 27, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterWes

Re: Steve's followup comment (all nice discussion btw)

Luxury lifestyles, rather than modern mass production is driving the price of bicycles up. Price is set at what we will pay, not just a mark-up of the base cost. This is now best displayed with the same digital content sold online around the world in different countries.

There's also the dirty enabler, consumer finance for us to spend beyond our true means, enabling branding, sports sponsorship, and annual product marketing of infinite variations of bicycles to make sales growth, with specifications of race level frames and components sold to ordinary people well beyond their needs.

We have a .com.au national bicycle chain present in most capital cities, whose goal is "to put people on a budget on bikes" and they've quickly expanded their model to include higher value premium products to meet the consumer market demand.

This carbon versus steel commuting bicycle choice randomised trial by a doctor is a perennial favourite to return to.

June 7, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterDavid
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