Brain Pickings

The Pursuit of Happiness on Two Wheels: A Brief History of the Bike

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What British artisans have to do with geometry, women’s liberation and the local economy.

I’m a big proponent of bike culture and an obsessive cyclist myself. On a cultural level, we’ve seen the incredible effects the bike has had on everything from emancipating women to catalyzing subcultures to revitalizing the local economy. And while the bicycle, since its earliest incarnation, has remained a rather remarkable machine, the never-ending quest for its perfection is a relentless conduit of creativity, imagination and artisanal innovation. That’s exactly what Robert Penn documents in It’s All About the Bike: The Pursuit of Happiness on Two Wheels — a fantastic new chronicle of the bike’s story, from its cultural history to its technical innovation to the fascinating, colorful stories of the people who ride it.

At the heart of [the capstone of the Victorian era] was the bicycle. In 1890, there were an estimated 150,000 cyclists in the USA: a bicycle cost roughly half the annual salary of a factory worker. By 1895, the cost was a few weeks’ wages and there were a million new cyclists each year.” ~ Robert Penn

Penn, a Condé Nast Traveler writer who has traveled more than 25,000 miles on a bicycle, approaches his subject with equal parts humor, humility and authoritative intelligence as he sets out to find himself a new bike. In the process, he dabbles across industrial archeology, economic theory, design and much more, profiles bike culture pioneers, talks to artisan frame builders from the world’s most arcane bike workshops, and even entertains the conceits of Victorian society, where a fear that the bicycle might be sexually stimulating to women became a real concern.

Illustration by Tamara Shopsin and Jason Fulford for The New York Times

Penn cites novelist John Galsworthy, who eloquently captures the bicycle’s momentous impact:

The bicycle…has been responsible for more movement in manners and morals than anything since Charles the Second … Under its influence, wholly or in part, have blossomed weekends, strong nerves, strong legs, strong language … equality of sex, good digestion and professional occupation — in four words, the emancipation of women.”

Entertaining, illuminating and beautifully illustrated, It’s All About the Bike is a rare and precious portal to the heart and soul of bike culture and its surprising footprint — tireprint? — on all of culture.

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American Look: A Technicolor Homage to Mid-Century Design

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Can you identify these 49 classic pieces of mid-century design?

In February, we took a look at American Maker — a fascinating Technicolor film produced by the Handy (Jam) Organization and commissioned by the Chevrolet division of General Motors in 1960 to celebrate craftsmanship and creativity. Two years earlier, the same team produced another film, American Look, celebrating mid-century lifestyle design ranging from dinnerware to public art murals to lawnmowers. It’s Mad Men meets Eames meets Objectified meets Look at Life, an early predecessor of BBC’s fantastic The Genius of Design five-part documentary.

Now, the fine folks at The Atlantic are on a mission to identify the 49 mid-century design classics that appear in the film, which Alexis Madrigal has painstakingly screen-shot and catalogued in order of appearance. So head on over to the gallery and lend Alexis your design geekery — how cool would it be to play human Google Goggles for product design?

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Drawn In: A Peek Inside Favorite Artists’ Private Sketchbooks

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What the myth of the muse has to do with the discipline of refinement, visual poetry and Shel Silverstein.

I’m a longtime fan of artist Julia Rothman, who pens the wonderful Book By Its Cover blog and who in 2009 co-masterminded the excellent Exquisite Book, in which 100 of today’s most exciting visual artists engaged in a collaborative game inpsired by the surrealist movement of the 1920s. This month, Julia is back with another superb book project: Drawn In: A Peek into the Inspiring Sketchbooks of 44 Fine Artists, Illustrators, Graphic Designers, and Cartoonists — a voyeuristic visual journey into how artists doodle, brainstorm and flesh ideas out, doing for art what Field Notes did for science, Street Sketchbook did for street art and Pure Process did for advertising.

The lavish volume offers a rare glimpse inside the minds and hearts of favorite artists like visual poet Sophie Blackall, happiness-designer Tad Carpenter, nature illustrator Jill Bliss and many more, showcasing stunning full-color images alongside profiles of the artists, who discuss their sketchbooks and how they use them.

Today, I sit down with Julia to chat about the theories of creative genius, common patterns of creation, and insights from the project.

q1

There’s been a lot of discussion lately about the origin of genius and the driving force behind the creative process, whether it’s the product of this age-old notion of “the muse” or closer to something like Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 hours theory, which frames “genius” as the product of merciless practice and discipline. Do artists’ sketchbooks bespeak a particular truth to tip the scale in either direction, or do they embody some combination of the two models of genius?

JR: I think it’s definitely a mix of both. While you can learn a technique like drawing and try to perfect it by practicing and practicing, you still need that bit of natural talent to bring it to the level of these artists. In these sketchbooks, there’s evidence of artists spending a lot of time getting their drawings to look a certain way. Sam Bosma’s sketches of the same character over and over are a great example. His pages show a refinement in each rendering of the same subject. But there is definitely a spontaneity in much of the work in these sketchbooks. One of my favorite examples is Christian DeFilippo’s balloon page. It seems like he just threw a handful of balloons on the paper and taped them down flat. The result is an amazing colorful and sculptural page, an experiment which couldn’t have been created from practice.

q2

Did any specific patterns emerge from the bird’s-eye view of the 44 sketchbooks, anything that was common to many artist and perhaps a useful insight on how the rest of us can best tame our inspiration and creative process?

JR: Each of these artists have such different styles and ways of working, but one of the things that they all seemed to do was observational drawing from life. While much of Anders Nilsen’s sketchbook was filled with comics and imagery from his own head, you’d turn a page and see a realistic sketch of a person who was sitting in front of him. It seems like being able to capture the world around you is an important skill to each of these artists whether or not their non-sketchbook work reflects that. Being able to recreate the world around them, must help artists to be able to create their own worlds.

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What dead artists’ sketchbooks do you most wish you could peek inside?

JR: Keiko Minami, Vera Neuman, Ben Shahn, John Singer Sargent, Shel Silverstein, Ezra Jack Keats, Olle Eksell, Alexander Calder, Charles Schulz… I could go on and on.

Drawn In is out this month and an absolute, rare kind of treat.

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