The Triangular Context
A friend of mine owns a couple of bike shops. He’s one of those rare guys who is both soulfully passionate about cycling AND has the business sense to keep his shops afloat and moving forward in a variety of cool ways. He’s generous with his time (and his bikes), and he’s a guy you’d want to ride with and then probably go eat a whole table full of Mexican food afterwards. He’s one of the good guys.
So I thought it best to be perfectly honest with him when he asked me what I thought of his shops’ new logo, which basically consists of two flat, offset triangles, symbolizing the front and rear triangles of a standard road bike frame. Recalling my rudimentary art education and the few principles of design I’d had shared with me by aging hippie art teachers and bespectacled eurosnob design directors, I declared my disdain for his logo. “Too many diagonals,” I said. “It’s asymmetrical, and it breaks itself in half, and I don’t like it.”
Turns out, his wife designed it. So that was slick. Excellent critique on my part. Luckily, he laughed and ordered another beer, and the following day we rode some of the best singletrack I’ve ever seen. No harm. No foul.
But about those triangles.
Like you, I spend an inordinate and indefensible amount of time looking at 3D versions of those two triangles. This one is sloped that way. This one has a weird paint job. That one has a tall head tube that turns it into an odd rhombus more than a triangle, but the song remains mostly the same.
What is it about one set of conjoined triangles that makes it aesthetically pleasing while another looks like a badly designed coat hanger? I’m not sure I could tell you. In fact, what my buddy’s shop logo pointed out to me was that bicycles might actually be ugly.
Do this. Find a picture of a bare frame. Look at it for a minute. Try to divorce it, in your mind, from the purpose you know it will fulfill. See it, if you can, as just an object, rather than as a bicycle. The front triangle is probably not really even a triangle, what with the head tube stuck on the front. And the rear triangle, or triangles actually are different gauge tubing, which only adds to the asymmetry. They’ve got these weird hook things on the back, the drop outs, that look like attachments for a KitchenAid mixer. What is this thing? And what possible purpose could it fulfill?
Am I right?
Now shake that last thought out of your head and forget this whole little exercise. Stitch those triangles back together with their future fork and future wheels. Stick in a seat post and bolt on the cranks. Put yourself on it and ride up a hill, a steep one, into a thick fog. Feel the moisture creeping down past the edge of your cap and look down at the magic machine between your legs and watch the greasy road slide by beneath you. Hear your breath and look up the road and feel yourself rocking back and forth in the pedals.
A bicycle frame is, most of the time, two triangles braced against one another, the rear split in two to accept a wheel, but that’s not what I see when I look. Instead, I overlay this massively intricate context that takes in not just components and kit, but history and experience and pining for an ideal physical experience that probably doesn’t exist or at least isn’t available to me. Anyway, I imbue. I embellish.
And more than anything, that’s what makes my asinine critique of those two triangles so ridiculous, and what makes that shop logo so much better than anything I could have come up with myself.
How often have you heard the trope about modern art? “Oh, I could have done that.” Two large, mostly bare canvases. Technically anyone could have made them, and yet to say you could have, or even would have, is to deny everything about art, which is context. Outside of the “art world,” such as it is, we lack the context to make any sort of valid judgment of those pieces. In the abstract, if you’ll forgive the term, we have no frame of reference.
The best trick is to be able to see a thing both within and without context. Maybe low art gives us a good example, those posters with hidden images in them. You stare at them just the right way and suddenly a school of dolphins appears, and then, as you try to focus on them, they disappear again. It’s a neat trick, if completely horrible to actually look at.
The bike is the same. You look and see two triangles, useless, awkward shapes stuck together, and then you look again and see Bernard Hinault charging off the front, you remember that summer when your legs were good every single day, a certain shade of blue reminds you of a long line of bike builders huddled over their work in a small shop in Italy. Or your friends ride up on their triangles, bastardized versions of ads they’ve seen in magazines, before a group ride that is really more of a chat.
Two riders throw their triangles at the line, and one stands a step higher on the podium than the other. All over the Earth, builders are fashioning tubes into a million different iterations of the same thing, which is a bicycle and not just a pair of triangles at all.
Follow me on Twitter @thebicyclerobot.
Photo: Marcel Duchamp’s Roue de Bicyclette, 1913.