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.