Design Museum, Ghent
Bike to the Future (until October 23) and permanent exhibition.
Bicycles are as close as it gets to the perfect blend of form and function — but that doesn’t stop designers seeking to make them sleeker, faster and funkier.
As such, they are ideal subject-matter for the Design Museum in the Belgian city of Ghent, whose Bike to the Future, despite the corny title, is a wide and even subtle exploration of cycling design and its enormous impact. In the words of London-based architect Hugh Pearman,“the bicycle is the most influential piece of product design ever”.
An 18th-century villa with a modern extension, set among the Dutch-gabled houses along the River Lys, Ghent’s Design Museum itself represents a witty interplay between the received and the avant-garde.
Its permanent collection juxtaposes period objects, including high-quality Delft, against the cheeky and modern; the richest and most luxurious against the austere and industrial.
Standing on one of the glorious parquet floors, Dutch designer Richard Hutton’s Book Table, is a table made entirely of books beneath Belgian designer Jan Pauwels’ Random Light, an elegant tangle of metal and bulbs.
Pre-empting the cycling exhibition, the Wassily Chair also stands on patina-ed parquet.
Its use of steel-tubing was a revolutionary breakthrough in furniture design and was the work of Marcel Breuer, who took his inspiration from bicycle handlebars while he was head of the cabinet-making workshop at the Bauhaus.
The Design Museum’s modern extension meanwhile pays tribute to Maarten van Severen, a Belgian designer who died in Ghent in 2005. In his own words, he explored “the boundary of usable furniture and the unusable object” and the section devoted to him displays his perfectly designed chairs, some of which use steel tubing, and an ever changing selection of the museum’s other artefacts.
The many remarkable designs you may see include a chair of the Malinese Dogon tribe, a gift to van Severen, who surely appreciated the absolute simplicity of a wooden Y shape stuck in the ground to be perched upon.
English photographer Eadweeard Muybridge’s series Female Getting into a Hammock (1887) is as much a wry exploration of the human form as of a man-made design icon.
On a floor just below, Bike to the Future starts with French photographer Alain Delorme’s Totems Series, 2009-11, a modern glance at the old-fashioned bikes of Chinese people peddling along with improbable loads.
Designers in pursuit of the ever more perfect bike experiment with the best way to carry a cargo of any description.
Design graduates from Milan have produced the Kangaroo bike (2015) with a huge pouch to take the strain.
Others seek to improve on the classics of Dutch and Danish cycling, renowned for baby carriers on wheels and the Danish Long John, which incorporates a low cargo area.
If these bikes are all about improving function, other designers, like van Severen, push at the limits of the useable.
The maddest is the Fliz, a 2010 prototype that takes its name from the German verb “flitzen”: to rush or to dash. Conceived as a velocipede, it has neither pedals nor a saddle, but a harness that allows the “rider” to wear the bike and move as fast as he or she can.
Also straining the limits of just travelling from A to B, at least for the everyday rider, are Philippe Starck’s fake fur-covered electric snow bike M.A.S.S. SNOW and an entirely wooden bike.
No exhibition on Belgian soil would be complete without a contribution from Eddy Merckx, who is still regarded as the world’s greatest cyclist – and the producer of an esteemed make of bicycle.
The appeal of his bikes for professionals is that they have been made according to the demands of the man nicknamed the Cannibal, who devoured the competition partly because of his obsession with tinkering until every mechanical detail satisfied him.
At the centre of the exhibition, a section on community has the dual purpose of entertaining younger visitors while their parents dream of buying status symbol bicycles and of reminding us that the revival of cycling over the past decade is transforming city design and stirring green activism.
If after all this, you’re still hungry for more bikes, you could take in the bicycle shop Plum on the way back to the train station.
Legendary among the cycling fraternity, Plum is an Aladdin’s Cave. Its treasures cater for anyone from Belgian old ladies with punctures to children, glowing with happiness as their parents buy them their first bike, to British professionals for whom Plum has served as an unofficial team base.
Plum also has its own museum that takes you back to the past and the evolution of bicycles, including enormous tricycles and a Belgian military bicycle, with a rifle built into the frame.
Barbara Lewis © 2016.