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The bicycle, and way beyond

'B(Yikes!)' exhibition shows how function and art can work together (or not).

July 06, 2006|David Pagel | Special to The Times

OVER the last decade, art and design have intermingled so promiscuously that it's often difficult to distinguish one from the other. Some folks think this is terrific -- that creative freedom is unleashed when categories are abandoned. Others are not so optimistic, believing that art and design serve different purposes -- and that knowing the difference clarifies the point of each.

At Art Center College of Design's Williamson Gallery, "B(Yikes!): Eccentric Mobility" juxtaposes seven bicycles, most from the late 19th century, with eight pedal-powered inventions, most from the late 20th century. You can't take any for a spin, but their designs are revealing.

The bikes are defined by streamlined efficiency and pragmatism. They sketch a quick history of innovation that leads to contemporary two-wheelers.

The oldest is a black Phantom Velocipede made in London in 1865 by Reynolds & Mays Co. Unlike earlier bicycles, which had huge front wheels and tiny rear ones, its wheels are the same size, about the diameter common to today's bikes. The Phantom's pedals are affixed to the front axle and the frame is hinged, allowing the front and rear wheels to pivot. This lets riders turn on a dime but makes straight-ahead riding wobbly.

An 1885 Rambler, built by Coleman & Jeffereys Co., features an early chain-drive system, standard frame, rock-solid tires and spring suspension. The chain's big lumpy links, which wrap around thick metal sprockets with hand-cut teeth, create a drivetrain that resembles tools carved for the Flintstones.

In contrast, an 1895 bicycle with pneumatic tires and pedals affixed to a miniature version of a locomotive's drive system, looks more advanced, stylish, even elegant. Its inflatable tires eliminate the need for a spring suspension. And its dual camshafts give it bilateral symmetry, a nicety of design that today's most expensive racers don't attain.

But with bikes, how something works is more important than how it looks. Chains quickly proved to be lighter, cheaper and more energy-efficient. The bike with the locomotive drive system turned out to be a dinosaur. Today it has the poignancy of an extinct species in a natural history museum, an innovation (or mutation) that neither adapted nor survived.

As soon as the bicycle's basic design was perfected -- or became too good to be improved upon -- specialization set in.

A gorgeous 1897 Fleetwood built for traveling salesmen includes a brass-and-wood frame that can be easily disassembled so that the bike fits into a matching wicker suitcase. An Enco Adult Scooter from the 1920s has a rear wheel with an off-center hub. This allows a rider to control speed by moving back and forth on a long wooden platform, which also provides room for petticoats and full-length dresses, garments not particularly suited for straddling bicycles. A hand-cranked tricycle, manufactured by the Singer Sewing Machine Co. in 1898, is designed for riders who could not use their legs.

THE late 20th century vehicles take off from these specialized bikes. Some take eccentricity to such extremes that it's difficult to take them seriously.

That's part of the point, particularly of Michael Lampi's 1986 Lampi Limo/Bantam Menace, a 60-speed, 88-pound contraption capable of traveling on roads, sandy beaches and water.

Sporting a retractable propeller, clamp-on pontoons and a removable short-blade paddle wheel, the multipurpose bicycle is a one-of-a-kind delight not meant for mass production. Welded, lashed and clamped together, it's a tinkerer's dream that travels best in a viewer's imagination, on flights of fancy more fun and freewheeling than navigation in the real world.

The same goes for Steven Roberts' Behemoth (Big Electronic Human-Energized Machine ... Only Too Heavy). Built from 1983 to 1994, the recumbent bicycle comes with trailer, aerodynamic nose cone, dashboard computer and helmet, both linked to solar-powered satellite communication systems. If NASA teamed up with Winnebago to make a vehicle for the information superhighway, this is what it would look like. Its charm comes from its obsolescence, from its having been immediately superseded by laptops, cellphones and other devices.

The Spring Walker, designed by John Dick and built by Eric Edward, would be fascinating if it were not accompanied by an obnoxious video of evening news reporters, morning program hosts and even Alan Alda telling gallery visitors what to think of the funky invention that allows individuals to bound down the street at 20 mph. On its own, the unwieldy collection of springs, pulleys and hinges resembles the offspring of an external-frame backpack and a cybernetic dinosaur related to the kangaroo family. But with the video, Dick comes off as a publicity hound.

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