Re: [CR]re: riv lugs, now portholes and perceptions of what is beauty

(Example: Framebuilders:Chris Pauley)

Date: Tue, 21 Mar 2006 12:05:44 -0800 (PST)
From: "Don Wilson" <>
Subject: Re: [CR]re: riv lugs, now portholes and perceptions of what is beauty
To: Classic Rendezvous <>
In-Reply-To: <>

First, aesthetics, along with logic and math, are rational tools for pursuit of elegance (the not to much, not to little, just the right amount notion) and beauty (what pleases reason and senses elegantly).

Second, a skillful designer uses aesthetic formalisms, heuristics and intuition the way a carpenter uses his tool kit. He chooses the right tool and uses it skillfully to achieve the desired effect.

Third, everyone designing and building things is making use of aesthetics, consciously, or unconsciously. Those who are considered exceptional at designing and building things tend to have an extensive knowledge of what works and what doesn't work aesthetically, whether they have acquired the knowledge systematically, or by trial and error, or some combination, and whether or not they are willing to reveal what they know, or choose instead play the curmudgeon for self protection.

Fourth, you can tell the people who thoroughly understand what they are doing and what they are trying to achieve, because their work oozes cohesion and wholeness, as well as excellence in the particulars. Lesser talents can get some elements to work and not others. As Kevin Costner playing Eliot Ness said in The Untouchables, "Many things are half the battle, gentlemen, but we are interested in the whole battle."

Fifth, whether you find a design elegantly beautiful or not depends significantly on the extent of commitment to, interest in and education about (self training or formal) elegance and beauty that you possess. This is not snobbishness. This just makes sense, if you think about it. If you don't give a hoot about baseball, it is very difficult to tell who has the more elegant and beautiful swing--Ted Williams or Mickey Mantle, Barry Bonds or Frank Thomas. Everyone creates elegant beauty and awkward ugliness in what they do, but some folks create elegant beauty more frequently and systematically than other folks (because they know what they're doing) and some folks perceive it more often than others (because they understand more about what they are looking at). Beauty is a collaboration between producer and consumer.

Sixth, aesthetics, and also math and logic, have some capacity for formal expression (mathematical or logical notation), some capacity for heuristic expression (verbal rules of thumb), and some capacity for intuitive expression (you can just feel what is right, but can't formalize it or put it in a heuristic that explains it). The latter is the most prone to being wrong imho, and those relying on the latter are the most prone to deluding themselves. Many persons without much aesthetic knowledge naively assume that most of design is attributable to "inspiration" and "brilliant talent" and "serendiptity." Apparently quite wrong. The few good designers I have access to suggest that most good designers are relentless perfectionists (who have to learn to limit that aspect of themselves or perish) that come at design from every possible angle imaginable, leaving as little to chance as possible, in order to try to develop the skill to get it right and make a living.

Seventh, as with logic and math, most people (me included) and unfortunately I hear an increasing number of professional designers, have not studied sufficient aesthetics to know and skillfully apply the myriad formal and heuristic rules that might be applied to a given design problem to achieve (and recognize) what a truly elegant solution would be. This is partly why there is so much bad design; the other part apparently being that cost/benefit trade-offs apparently favor spending on marketing over spending on rigorous design; that is, tons of marketing can push junk more profitably than pounds of marketing can push brilliantly designed products, or something like that.

Eighth, without rigorous knowledge of aesthetics, it is very hard to understand whether the beauty one perceives is systematically arrived at, or a fluke (note: there's nothing inherently wrong with a fluke if you can recognize it and figure out after the fact how to reproduce it).

Ninth, without rigorous knowledge of aesthetics, it is very hard to look at an accidental discovery (see fluke above) of an elegant and beautiful design solution and discover why it is working and how that can be replicated, or how the principles underlying that success, can be adapted usefully to other design problems.

Tenth, designers, or critics, or laymen, who tell you that all or most of the above is not essentially true are either fooling you, or themselves.

Eleventh, some skillful designers are very generous with their knowledge and will gladly reveal how they do what they do including the rigorousness of the thought involved and the aesthetic tools they make use of. Others are generous but rather inarticulate. Still others are stingy with the tricks of their trade. Designers and artists, are afterall in a competitive profession/trade and it is often not in their interests to reveal the tricks of their trade. Charlie Chaplin never did reveal how he did some of the illusions of his films, for one example from film--another design oriented art/craft. But alot of designers, as in every other profession, are just barely competant and so have very little to share. And then there is the small group of designers, as in any profession, that are basically crazy and even if they talk alot about what they do, nothing much coheres. If you choose to study the nuts, beware you are almost by definition taking on an extra load of work. By this I mean you are becoming obligated to distill new aesthetic rules of your own derived from their--to put it charitably--non linear thinking, because beautiful or not their thinking is almost certainly disconnnected fragments of brilliant clarity and fragments of gibberish without reliable footnotes to distinguish the two and make the connections.

Now, what little I know about aesthetics I have gleaned from the following sources: artist Wasily Kandisky's book on aesthetics (the title I forget right now, but this one lets you look at virtually any designed thing and tell immediately whether a designer had much systematic skill), philosopher George Santayana's book "The Sense of Beauty" (this explains the role of beauty in an epistemological framework--pretty dry and dull going), a college statistics teach who took pity on me and taught me a small bit about elegance in mathematical/computer modelling, and last but not least a handful of working designers that I have gotten to know on the internet the last few years. Read even just the Kandinsky book (or one like it) and you will be able to look at the aesthetics of bicycle lug filings and get a handle on what the designer was up to, whether he knew what he was doing, and whether he should have gone about it another way.

Now, no knowledge is infallible, expecially when one is being careless one's self. For an example at my own expense, recently I was rapidly skimming ebay and carelessly outted a fraud bike thinking it might be something worthwhile. I got a proper clubbing for it. :-) But that error had more to do with my hurriedly noting the oddness of the bike and calling it to folks attention, as in hey, anyone ever heard of this? Had I taken the time to look closely at the picture as others did, I wouldn't have made the mistake, with or without any knowledge of aesthetics.

But when it comes down to deciding whether a bike is truly something special, especially among a respected craftsman's inevitably varied output (no not even the masters are great everytime out), well, the old aesthetic tool box is a good thing to have handy.

With knowledge of aesthetics, you become a much more perceptive and discriminating analyst, whether or not you are right every time about what's good (no one is), and you can begin to look at designs and say why this one works and that one doesn't, why even though most people don't get it this is a pretty fine piece of work and the other more popular thing may not be (and sometimes vice versa), and you don't have to rely on the opinions of others, or on your own intuitions. You can rely on your own reason.

Now, I'm not going to weigh in on the topic of whether Rivendell lugs are any good or not. I've learned certain fields of discussion are a no win for me. I will say if you learn and apply even some of the most basic rules of aesthetics you will quickly understand why you respond to them the way that you do.

Frankly, some artifacts are so sublime, that it doesn't matter a whit whether you know aesthetics or not. They kick you in the head with beauty. When I saw the David so many years ago now in Florence, I knew even less about aesthetics then than I do now, and it still bowled me over; not because I was preprogrammed to think it was beautiful, which I was (our culture does that to us about all kinds of things), but because it REALLY WAS sublime. Mickey Buonarotti hit a sculptural home run to straight away center, deep, deep, deep, way back, up on to the roof top and out of the Florentine equivalent of Yankee Stadium. But over the years, the more I've learned about aesthetics, the more sublimity it acquires. This guy could really find the line and form and massing in the stone, with unparalleled elegance, and he achieved, at least at my level of perception, unparalled beauty, especially after the scales of cultural conditioning fell away. And it didn't hurt that it had a dimension of cultural allegory, as it was supposed to be a tribute to Florentine power entering the world stage.

Well, some of these lugged steel racing bikes of the last 75 or so years are remarkably elegant and beautiful things, whether or not they are widely recognized as such. Some kick you in the head. But alot are on the edge between sublime and simply idiosnycratic. One way to bias in favor of the legacy of the sublime and help these KOF builders continue to advance bicycle design is to bone up on your aesthetics and encourage newbies to also. The more perceptive and knowledgeable we all are, the more we will tend to reward (by purchase and/or praise) those designers who are really designing and building something extraordinary and diminish both for those who are not.

Also, because we are talking mostly about North American builders here, it is even more incumbent upon us to understand aesthetics. Why? Because being Americans they are quite likely to produce designs that are significantly different from, say, English or Italian designers, even as they are influenced by them. Its a matter of cultural sensibility, imho. Because of this inherent difference, it is easy to misjudge American bike design. It is easy to say, well, it doesn't measure up, simply because it is diifferent and doesn't express the same sensibility. This is foolish and parochial. The same sound aesthetics should underpin both a Hetchins and a Rivendell, or my current favorite, a Vanilla. But the sensibilities of each culture and each designer should produce different riffs on the same aesthetics. Hence, in the case of a Rivendell, it is okay for the lugs not to look like the lugs on a 50s Bates, but they should still be based on sound aesthetic principles that yield a distinctly North American, or at least distinctly Rivendell design.

To restate the point because I think it important, different cultures have some different sensibilities and so tend to yield different flavors of beauty. The first Camaro Z car is a beautiful thing, but utterly different from a Ferrari Daytona, which is also a beautiful thing. But you may not give the Camaro its due, if you do not recognize the American sensibility and the way in which its designers went about using sound aesthetics to achieve it.

Finally, there is an old rule of thumb about gate keepers (scholarly reviewers) in academic publications that goes something like this: a few great thinkers will always produce innovative new research (they can't help themselves), but it takes great gatekeepers to recognize it and publish it for there to be real progress in science. To wit, as science is constrained by its reviewers, so KOF framebuilders are constrained by their buyers. Great KOF framebuilders need great separate the wheat from the chaff. And of course the buyers need the KOF framebuilders. No golden goose, no golden egg.

Don Wilson
Los Olivos, CA

--- Ken Wehrenberg wrote:

> Chuck Schmidt opined:
> The holes in the fork crown always reminded me of
> those silly fifties
> Buick portholes.
> <
> buick_fender_mounted_portholes.jpg>
> <
> riv_gp_headtube_400.jpg>
> Here are some more KOF portholes:
> Actually, I am in total agreement with Charles and
> Chuck. The artistic
> eye tells me there is incongruity in some aspects of
> the Riv designs
> and the scientific side of me questions why that may
> be. Mr Starck
> touched on the mathematical side of the why. In
> facial form, structure
> and reconstruction of parts, we deal with golden
> section ideas as a
> "go-to" reinforcement or substantiation of why some
> things function and
> then coincidentally work in terms of beauty.
> Studies have been done
> measuring conclusively that babies can sense an
> attractive mother
> differently than a less attractive one. There
> appears to be some
> hardwiring in all of us, courtesy of our Creator.
> That being said, it
> may be somewhat different in different races. The
> golden section
> mathematical rules do not work in quite the same
> ways for Asians, for
> example.
> A week or so ago, the Wall Street Journal had a
> piece on the changing
> aspects of frontal appearance of cars. A lot of
> people apparently base
> a large part of their decision to purchase a vehicle
> based on its face.
> The snarly Chris Bangle BMWs and the new Camrys
> are examples of how a
> relatively nasty expression has displaced a pleasant
> face in the car
> market. I hope we don't have a bike market where
> the market gravitates
> evermore to caulk-beaded tubes, etc and forgets the
> decent pleasing
> beauty of lugs, especially those done well,
> regardless of our
> comparatively petty artistic predilections.
> Ken Wehrenberg, Hermann, MO
> _______________________________________________
> Classicrendezvous mailing list

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