The Bicycle as Art: The True Inheritor of the Bauhaus Ethic
The reason most sensible people don’t cycle is that the bicycles in the shops are instruments of torture deliberately misshapen by various forms of racing. Add annual model cycles in bicycles that impress only unreconstructed teenage fashion victims, and it becomes easy to see why politicians and Greens who express surprise that more people do not cycle are either stupid or disingenuous. Most modern bikes are like women’s clothes designed by misogynists: created primarily to make the buyer look ridiculous, and to be carelessly discarded when the next fad comes along. Instant trash, bikes and clothes both.
But there is a class of bicycle, hardly ever seen in Ireland, which makes a religion of ergonomics, the science of beauty through utility expressed in the Bauhaus creed Form follows function. I am generally contemptuous of the Bauhaus: a bunch of aristocrats whose patronizing social housing, writ large, became the dull disfiguring skyscrapers of our cities, and whose smaller artifacts such as chairs are instruments of torture revered by high priests of the “cutting edge”, graphic design jargon best translated into English as “useless for intended function but a certain prizewinner”.
There is an exception. Dutch functionalism has always appealed as true to both the principle and execution of the ideal the Bauhaus leaders sold for leftwing kudos and American dollars. It is no accident that the most ergonomic bicycles (and some of the best graphic design) in the world come from the Netherlands. The aspirational Dutch brand, Gazelle, is widely recognized as the Rolls-Royce of bicycles, and the best Gazelle as iconic works of art. Raleigh, you might think, without the decline and multiple falls.
So, when after fifteen years my old Peugeota mountain bike marginally civilized by mudguardsfinally gave up the ghost, I went shopping for a Dutch stadfiets, a city bike, a bike born civilized, on which one sits proudly upright rather than crouches like a gorilla in too small a cage. As an artist myself, and an art critic, I of course looked at the Gazelle. To my great surprise a Gazelle turned out to be no more expensive than even the finest Far Eastern copies.
Art criticism should have predictive value, so I selected not a proven classic Gazelle like the Primeur, recognized by everyone for decades as an established work of mobile art. Instead I chose a future classic, the Gazelle Toulouse, which is the traditional city bike upgraded with a lighter aluminium frame, a slightly pacier geometry to make the bike more responsive, a front disc brake to stop it securely in all weathers on all gradients, and suspension in the front fork and the seatpost for comfort and control. Everything else on the classic diamond frame, purity refined over a century, arises from ergonomic, kinesthetically satisfying details.
Gazelle Toulouse. This is my 2004 model.
It is a sleeper, looking just like every other big black city bike*,
only the disk brake giving away its purpose of fast touring in comfort.
The next year Gazelle gave the Toulouse an overtly "sporting" frame
and a bronze colour scheme, subverting the effect.
In the Gazelle every functional detail has been considered critically against the criterion of the rider’s security and comfort. There are no derailleurs, those fiddly, hanging bits that dirty and cut your hands when they cause the chain to fall off the cogs. Instead the 8-speed gears are enclosed in the rear axle and the chain is enclosed in a chaincase so that it cannot fall off or soil your clothes. The rear brake is enclosed with the hub to keep out dirt and make it last forever. The mudguards and the coat protector are not extrasthis is a bike you can ride in your best clothesnor is the built-in lock, nor the leakproof safety tyres with reflective sidewalls, nor the strong carrier with multiple extra-stretchy rubber bands securely to hold briefcase, shopping or touring luggage. The seat is wide enough not to cause impotence. The bright rear light illuminates automatically when dusk falls and remains on until the bike has stopped moving for several minutesbrilliant! The scheinwerfer at the front is high-visibility halogen.
Is there a downside to owning a bike like this? Several. People think you’re a plutocrat and raise their prices. You are tempted to splash out on expensive accessories to match your Gazelle, like the Ciclosport HAC4 integrated heartrate monitor and bike computer I bought, a work of art in its own right.
You want to spend more time riding your bike. You look down on Range Rover drivers in both senses of the word, and will soon acquire a reputation as a snob. A big no-nonsense bike on which you sit up straight and look the world in the eye causes the best of the truck drivers to treat you with a respect that can easily breed a dangerous arrogance. Are these artistic considerations? You bet they are! Art should have a high feelgood factor.
A work of art is forever. A big black Gazelle bicycle made by proper artisans endures, precisely like a little black dress made by one’s seamstress at Christian Dior. Style, in direct contrast to fashion, is truly ageless. Survival turns style into art.
*"...looking just like every other big black city bike...": I mean in The Netherlands, of course. In Ireland, where I live, mine is the only one. Truck drivers and people in Range Rovers with dreams of fitness stop me on the roads to talk to me about my bike, the same way people sitting in cars at beauty spots want to chat to me when I come off a mountain about how one day they too will walk those hills.
•André Jute’s most recent book on aesthetics in action is Grids: the structure of graphic design (Rotovision, Switzerland).