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Richard Sachs : Imitation Art

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For me and my slimy ex-cycling industry background, nothing infuriates me more than the genius of Richard Sachs. Not so much his bicycles – although in the flesh they are very ‘tight’ (I finally got to see them in the flesh at Rapha NYC this September – it was more ‘shrine’ than ‘bike shop’) – but the way through his writing he both seems to simultaneously reinforce the fanboi-driven status-quo of the framebuilding establishment, but also elevate his own status in the process. All while on the surface appearing very learned and considered.

In a recent Facebook post entitled “I got dragged kicking and screaming into the Investment Cast era.”, Sachs recounts the ‘pre-Investment Cast’ bicycle framebuilding world, and his part in it –

“There was a time when the folks who worked at the benches where all these beautiful items were made had to be designers, joiners, machinists, engineers, and businessmen, as well as metalsmiths and artists…The reason for this was because the raw materials used in the fabrication process were so low-tech and crude”

Read: “Framebuilder’s back in the day were more multi-faceted”

I would argue that none of this has changed. What he is talking about here is the ability to ‘move metal’, so while there may not be much need to functionally reshape pressed lugs in the modern context, the skills of the framebuilder are much more diverse, and of course now also electronic. There’s more of everything for the modern framebuilder to process so I would argue that the ‘moving metal’ part is the least of their problems.  They still have to be designers and business people, but now they have social media and electronic marketing to deal with, as well as globalisation, recycling and a raft of other factors the framebuilders in the 1970’s wouldn’t dreamed of. The modern framebuilder has to be much more broadly skilled than in the past.

“I feared the day I would be taking a piece of metal from a carton, sent to me from the very foundry that cast it, and use it without any personal attention needed. The parts that we all labored over to make technically correct for the framebuilding process as well as beautiful for anyone who might see it – there now would be far less to differentiate my work from anyone else choosing the same parts from the same source.”

Read: “Technology makes your product less personal(ised)”

The art of embellishment, or stamping your own mark on a handmade item really doesn’t have anything to do with the materials or tools. The medium is not the message, how you communicate who you are, what you do and what you stand for is the message. The medium is irrelevant. This is I believe one of the advantages of Designers. Designers aren’t entrenched in the medium, they’re entrenched in the message, so as a breed we’re not hung up on the semantics of the medium. The common vernacular is ‘not seeing the forest for the trees’ or, ‘hiding in plain sight’, perhaps. When you’re too close to the ‘processes of the medium’,or if processes consume you, you’re then not mentally in the space to be able to be subjective about the message.

Sure, you can base a business on a technology, but you better have some exclusivity to it or you’re in serious trouble.

“‘Imitation art’ is a phrase I use to describe a finished piece whose aesthetics and parameters mimic an original, though it’s manufactured by someone other than the artist and often using different and more efficient methods.”

This is doublespeak as far as I’m concerned. An ‘Imitation’ has nothing but negative connotations, and ‘art’, positive. A piece of art is unique and communicates the human condition; an ‘Imitation’ is a ‘simulation’, a ‘copy’.

Sachs is using this doublespeak as a kind of back-handed compliment, albeit a compliment to those that buy and use his frambuilding lugs and braze-ons. You’re still an artist – don’t worry – but you’re imitating me and all whom preceded me. You’re mimicking me – just with different and more efficient methods.

“I never sensed it in real time, but folks who designed parts that I used up until the very day I had my own iterations enabled my career to be realized.”

This is a trite comment. Of course before you design something yourself, through the act of using pre-existing designed objects, those folks are realising future careers. Can Sachs honestly say he picked up an existing set of lugs, designed by someone else, and not realise it was enabling his career? I find this ludicrous to say the least.

“Making an original is like having a dream; taking an original and finding ways for others have it and its possibilities – this is like sharing that dream.”

I’m not sure what Sachs is trying to say with this statement. It all seems very ‘dreamy’. Perhaps he is enthused about the prospect of seeing what others can do with his framebuilding parts, as perhaps he was in the past? The issue that I have, is that the concept is kind of an infinite loop of imitation. Why exactly are his lugs for example ‘originals’ when they are very conservative shapes based on designs of the past? Why – if a framebuilder takes his lugs and re-interprets them – is that not also an ‘original’? Where is the room in this occasion for those truly doing things outside the traditional lugged framebuilding square, such as David Bohm of Bohemian Bicycles or Tom Warmerdam of Demon Frameworks?

I’d perhaps argue that everything is original (unless, perhaps, it’s ‘Imitation Art’), and that for a framebuilder to succeed, it’s not about sharing Richard Sachs’ dream – it’s about having your own, being realistic about it, and more importantly than anything else, communicating who you are, what you do, and what you stand for. I don’t think a tube butting profile, a set of generic looking lugs or dropouts is necessarily ‘art’ nor a particularly interesting dream. My designer-brain only sees these things as the medium (Not the message, remember?); raw, basic materials upon which to communicate something exciting and meaningful.

All this talk of Sachs being an ‘original’ and ‘sharing the dream’ is really a bit of an illusion. What this post of his communicates is a kind of simplified ‘Groundhog Day’ scenario – taking what any experienced designer would classify as raw materials, and imbuing them with ‘dream’ like qualities, which the bug-eyed young framebuilder would then take to create his ‘imitation art’ in the hope of one day being in the position as Sachs is now to create their own ‘originals’, and then repeat, ad infinitum.

What better way to reinforce the custom framebuilding status-quo, by realising the dream of being an imitation of an imitation?

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