The apprentice’s craft

The old craftsperson is back. He lost his job to the factories and became a worker; now he is back as a small business owner, this time with new tools to compete with the old workplace.
— Rolf Jensen and Mika Aaltonen, The Renaissance Society

The master craftsman is adept in using a philosophical framework, as well as tools and materials, to deliver useful things to the world. But more than that, the craftsman must be open constantly to new ideas; he is essentially always in beta.
— Alan Moore, No Straight Lines

If you were a craftsman, or merchant, or clothier in the case of Rembrandt’s drapers, guilds offered members and society at large great benefits: ranging from education and apprenticeships to medieval forms of peer review, and all important stamps of approval.
— Peter Sims, The Return of the Guild

For all the innovations and dominance of different materials in their manufacture, the shape of the racing bicycle frame has remained remarkably consistent since the latter years of the 19th century. The road bike diamond is familiar to all, regardless of whether you express an interest in the sport or not. The production of these frames transcends the hazy line that separates bespoke artisanship and craft from large-scale industrial output. Indeed, just as professional cycling is inextricably connected to the evolution of mass media from the late Victorian period onwards, so too does the history of the bicycle in the same period reflect in microcosm shifting attitudes towards industry and craft. The revival of interest in cycling and the emergence of the maker movement has prompted increasing curiosity about the skills of the master framebuilder.

In Open, David Price observes that ‘Efficiency, standardisation, elimination of waste, were key drivers in the shift from craft production to mass production.’ Bicycle manufacture was no exception. Early on, craftsmen had mastered the manipulation of steel tubing, shaping it into attractive frames with ornate lugs. However, the incessant search for lighter, cheaper, stiffer and stronger parts and frames, particularly in professional cycling, led to experimentation with other materials too, including titanium, aluminium and carbon. The development of carbon moulds, as well as alternative methods for manipulating carbon-fibre-reinforced polymers, opened the way for outsourced mass production in Asian factories. Designed in Italy. Made in Taiwan. The names of famous brands plastered over uniform products lacking any idiosyncrasies.

Off-the-shelf bicycles flooded the market to suit all riding styles, body shapes and sizes, not to mention wallets. But they lacked the personal touch. It was at the fringes of cycling culture, among the messenger community, for example, and the fixed-wheel enthusiasts, that something a bit more distinctive could be seen. Famous old marques and steel steeds were dusted off and repurposed. Artisans of the past were sought out, their knowledge and craft highly valued again. Steel and titanium frames offered romanticised memories of things past, a different feel on the road, a ride that appealed to those less interested in haste. Measurement here related not so much to speed, distance covered, calories burned and heartbeat, as to bespoke fit for your own body. In his It’s All About the Bike – and the documentary film that complements it – Rob Penn enthusiastically describes the experience of having crafted for you, by an experienced artisan, a frame that fits you like a glove. Bella Bathurst, in her The Bicycle Book, goes further still, describing the experience of making your own frame under the watchful eye of a master framebuilder. The journey to knowledge mastery starts with both conversation and action.

Genesis Equilibrium Ti frameset

It is intriguing to see how the professional cycling teams have carried over the notion of the master–apprentice relationship into the sport itself and not just in its supply chain. In peloton formations there is always a fluidity of leadership, roles and responsibilities that is governed by context. The passage of time comes into play too. For example, many successful professional cyclists at career’s end as practitioners on the road move into advisory or management roles off it, serving as sporting directors, coaches and mentors. At the other extreme is the space created for promising, young amateur riders towards the end of each professional cycling season. Stagiaires are given the chance to gain experience competing in professional races as short-term members of established teams. This gives both the rider and the team the opportunity to assess readiness, attitude, aptitude and team fit. It is an immersive learning experience, where callow youth rubs shoulders with and performs alongside seasoned veterans of the road racing circuit. For some it is the launching pad to a successful career. Mark Cavendish, for example, was a stagiaire with the T-Mobile Team in 2006, having spent time in one of their feeder squads. The following year he was riding his first Tour de France with the same team.

The novice is exposed to the knowledge and expertise not only of the master but of the colleagues with whom the master interacts. Skills are acquired through observation, imitation, enquiry, internalisation, deed and subsequent repetition. It happens in the cycling team with the annual introduction of new team members and constant access to veterans of the sport. It happened in the medieval monasteries, as suggested by The Name of the Rose; Adso learning not only in the moment alongside Brother William, but years after the fact as he reflects back on past events and filters them through decades of subsequent experience. It happened with the blacksmiths, bakers, cobblers and masons of old too. It happens still on a daily basis, in workplaces large and small, in both the office filled with knowledge workers and the artisan’s workshop occupied by the few. It is personal knowledge mastery made manifest. A perpetual exercise in curiosity, acquisition and application of learning. Both master and apprentice continuing to learn together.

Where recognition and reward for one’s expertise is the end goal, there is always the danger of stagnation. An organisation comprised only of a team of deep specialists is not unlike a bank of elevators, separated from one another, loosely serving a common purpose but only occasionally pulling in the same direction. The tendency towards hyperspecialisation fosters a blinkered perspective. The knowledge and personal experience of the individual gradually becomes valued above all else, curiosity fades, self-promotion escalates, expertise loses its currency and evolves into empty rhetoric without foundation in the market it is intended to serve. The craftsman as the incomplete, always evolving learner is a useful countermeasure to this. By remaining open to new ideas – including those introduced by their own youthful apprentices – the craftsman allows themselves to blend new knowledge with traditional practices, to experiment and tinker at the edges.

Some of the great innovations in cycling equipment, including the quick-release wheel, have resulted from such Trojan Mice initiatives. So too some of the nutritional and training practices adopted by cycling teams open to the influence of newcomers experienced in other disciplines. Many of the great masters of painting have also shown themselves to be receptive to new influences and ideas. Picasso’s career, for example, is one marked by many sudden deviations and experiments in form and style, co-opting and personalising, cycling constantly between the role of master and apprentice. Maybe what our modern offices need are a few more neo-generalists, who can both span as well as mine specialisms, an injection of artisanship and a greater emphasis on learning while doing.

It is a rewarding, stretching venture. The quest for a mastery that can never quite be attained. What Harold Jarche calls life in perpetual beta.
Knowledge artisans are retrieving the older artisan model and re-integrating previously separate skills. Knowledge artisans not only design the work but they can do the work. It is not passed down the assembly line.
— Harold Jarche, ‘A New Way to Work’

An apprenticeship is one kind of learning field. A team is another kind of learning field, because the action is shared among the members of the team.
— Dave Gray with Thomas Vander Wal, The Connected Company

Craft is what we are expected to know; art is the unexpected use of our craft.
— Ed Catmull with Amy Wallace, Creativity, Inc.

It turns but does not try to remember
it does not precede or follow
obey or disobey
it is not answering a question
it arrives knowing without knowledge
— W. S. Merwin, ‘The Artisan World’