October 16th, 2010

The sine qua non of a Classic design, is the story behind it.

The sine qua non of a Classic design cannot be discerned by examining the material substance of any one instance. I can prove the truth of that claim to any of you with no prior knowledge of the story of the Moulton bicycles, that you could be forgiven for thinking were the result of a student project, if all you knew of them was what I am telling you now, that those are pictures of them below. To see them as design classics, would require some knowledge of the stories that make these bikes emblems of postwar British Modernism, and the whole value system of that delightfully quaint era. How I would love Dr. Alex Mouton's dogmatic faith in his own little trinity: small wheels, suspension, and stand-over! How I would love his belief in himself, just because he is a doctor. These are bicycles for men of blind faith, men of the Modernist persuasion, who actually enjoy having their weekend rides turn into opportunities to deliver sermons, to anyone fool enough to remark on their bikes.
The bike's other moral though, is that of the factory. Not the sweat shop in China where kids make our bikes, but the kind of factory kids used to visit, before the industrialized world outsource the actual industry. I remember school excursions to those factories when I was a lad. We would move along gangways and be given free souvenirs at the end. The Moulton is the product of such a factory, the kind of factory for which we who remember all reminisce.

Most importantly, these are factories where standardization is done in the service of perfection, not profit, just as the industrial revolution first promised it would. Enlarge the images and you will see what I mean. Each bike is a jewel. And, as a true design icon, the Moulton only comes in one size. Through standardization, Modernists strove for perfection, with the perfect/ideal male human form at the center. I guess if you don't fit the bike, you're not fit to ride. The last shot there links to one of many web clips you will find of dear Alex, always wearing that same houndstooth jacket, telling the stories that make his bike more than their matter.

Though I'm not really qualified or inclined to provide a considered history of the Modernist / Industrialist aesthetic, in terms of mass production, intervals in a potted history that do come to my mind are as follows: the invention of the printing press in the fifteenth-century, creating mass produced books; pulley blocks mass produced at the Portsmouth Block Mills; Adam Smith writing on the division of labour; Joseph Paxton building the Crystal Palace by assembling prefabricated mass produced parts; Henry Ford's assembly-line cars (of course); Buckminster Fuller's Dymaxion House; and Kelvinator fridges. It is thanks to that tradition that mass produced items are not viewed as substitutes for one-off creations, but the real thing.