After 20+ years of intense yearning I finally got my ultimate bicycle, a Rivendell.
I love beautiful objects, especially beautiful useful objects. This is why I am a designer.
But the most beautiful and most useful object of all is the bicycle. Inconceivable amounts of intelligence, love and effort — heart, and soul and strength — have been poured into perfecting the diamond frame bicycle by innumerable passionate people.
The bicycle is the ultimate object. And the Rivendell is the ultimate exemplar of the ultimate object.
What makes Rivendells so special is the old-school fabrication, which uses lugs to join steel tubes together. The artistry is stunning.
But the significance of Rivendell goes even further. The bicycle and the words of the bicycle’s designer, Grant Peterson, gave me my first deep reconception of an object.
It was a conversion experience. Before, the conversion, I wanted a minimalist bicycle fabricated from the highest tech materials. But then I read what Peterson had to say, and Non-Rivendell bicycles were magically transformed into variously deficient approximations of Rivendells. Rivendells became symbolic of what I care about.
My overall aesthetic changed. My preference shifted from pristine, unadorned euclidian mind-forms to symbolically-ornamented heart-forms. A beneficiary of this change was Susan, who was suddenly liberated from modernist austerity, and freed to transform our house into the odd, colorful, semi-psychedelic warmth cocoon it is today.
This experience gave me my first glimpse of what design can be and do, not only with physical forms, but with conceptions. Later, many of the key ideas Grant Peterson demonstrated were articulated by Christopher Alexander as life-changing general principles of design that guide my practice today.
Here are some of the more memorable things Grant Peterson said that got into my heart.
We love lugs. We don’t build frames without them. We like the look, the art, the way they’re made, and we like designing smart, beautiful, and unique ones. We also like knowing that a Rivendell, Atlantis, or Heron frame is unmistakably itself beneath the paint, because the lugs identify it. Fifty and even a hundred and fifty years from now, when all of today’s frames have been retired or repainted or rusted away or whatever, a dumpster diver will come upon a paintless, decal-less Rivendell or Atlantis or Heron, take it to a bicycle historian, and there won’t be any doubt what kind of frame it is. That notion may seem silly to you, but it’s a small part of what makes lugged frames special for a lot of people. They have a face and a personality that is unique. No big deal, maybe, but it’s there.
“Form follows function” works for nature, but too often with people, it’s used as an excuse to rush to market something that’s fully functional but still not so good looking.
(Have you noticed that old things usually look good? Manhole covers, typewriters, ’50s station wagons, chairs, hand-saw handles, buildings, bells, letter openers, kitchen appliances, almost anything. They were designed slowly, on a real drawing board, by people who were part industrial designer, part artist, part engineer. When you mix those qualities with manual involvement and patience, what finally hatches usually looks good.)
When it comes to bicycle frames, we like them to look low-key from a distance and interesting up close. Lugs look good to us, and a little fanciness is fine, too. We want a Rivendell frame to be recognizable, even if a robber steals it and repaints it, and our signature lugs guarantee that.
It’s hard to dwell on points such as appearance without coming off like a snob; and rest assured we do see the beauty in rusty, homely, utility bikes that get ridden and help Save the Planet, etc. But at some point in the design and building of your frame, we make some decisions that affect aesthetics, and although we aren’t the final arbiters of good taste, we know what we like, and always look after the frame.