The Irony of Craft
In what counts for spare time I’ve got two book proposals I’ve been working on. One of them concerns frame builders. My online column for peloton, called Artisans, is meant to be background research for many of the builders I believe will be the subjects of the book. If you’ve never checked it out, you should drop by and read a few here.
Recently, I was on the phone with one of the legends of frame building. We got to talking about the dream that leads one to want to become a frame builder. I’ve always enjoyed talking to frame builders. They have that feel of brother-of-a-different-mother to me. The work is solitary, creative, essentially commercial in nature and requires simple acts to be repeated thousands of times to hone one’s craft. After a while, they find they begin exploring arcane ideas about heat, silver, steel. At a certain level, writing is no different. I find myself thinking about verbs and the relative evil of sentimentality.
The builder I was speaking to told me how he had dreamt that being a frame builder was like being a shop keeper, such as a tailor. You show up in the morning, open up, work a full day, then close up and head home. But the idea was that working alone was meant to foster craft and remove the need to crank out production-style work. He believed that working alone was the key to being able to perform artisanal work. But that’s not all: When he was starting out, he had a belief that most of the builders who weren’t employed by the big companies like Colnago worked in exactly that manner.
By the time he found out that wasn’t the case, he’d already been building on his own for a few years. What I’ve learned of most of the European shops is that their priorities were shifted toward maximizing efficiency to increase output. Most of the builders I’ve spoken to working in the U.S. in the 1970s and ’80s favored limited output so they could focus on quality. Indeed contract builders were common in Italy. There were some who kept a stock of their clients’ decals around for when they came calling.
What American builders—and consumers—seem to struggle to appreciate is that to most of the builders working in Europe up through the ’80s and ’90s is that the bicycle frame was a commodity rarely separated by more than paint and decals. Branding and identity were the province of paint, decals and sponsorship. That is, you could put Colnago paint and decals on any bike and—ergo—it was a Colnago. There wasn’t a belief that anything beneath the paint could be terribly special.
When you consider those early builders here in the U.S., that is the group that really helped put frame building on the map here in the 1970s, guys like Albert Eisentraut, Richard Sachs, Peter Weigle, Ben Serotta and Brian Baylis, they each epitomized that ideal of the solitary craftsman, at least early on. Nevermind the fact that Eisentraut and Serotta never really made a career of working alone, that romanticized notion of the shopkeeper craftsman that inspired many of them—and most of today’s builders as well—is largely a fiction.
This idealized vision held by a handful of American builders of just what the life and purpose of a one-man frame shop is is largely responsible for the state of frame building in the U.S. and even around the world. The example set by Sachs, Weigle and other one-man shops is directly responsible for the influx of guys like Sacha White of Vanilla and David Wages of Ellis. The irony is that Sachs and Weigle weren’t really responding to a tradition; they were inventing one.
Relationship counselors are in the business of reminding us that when we enter a relationship we rarely see the object of affection as they are. We see them as we want them to be. Think about that a second. Is there a better demonstration of a love of craft than setting out to be an artisan as part of a grand tradition that exists only in your mind?