Bayley, Stephen (No. 2)

Stephen Bayley photographed by Barry LateganStephen Bayley is one of the world's best-known authorities on design and popular culture. His consulting projects include Ford, Absolut Vodka, Coca-Cola, Volkswagen Audi, BMW, the Victoria & Albert Museum, among others. He is also an outspoken commentator on art and design, contributing regularly to the Times, the Daily Mail, the Observer, the Los Angeles Times, GQ, and many more publications, as well as broadcasting on various popular programs in the U.K. and U.S. In addition, he has lectured in universities and museums throughout Britain as well as around the world. In 1989 he was made a Chevalier de L'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres, France's top artistic honor, by the French Minister of Culture.

Erik speaks with him about his new book, coauthored with Terence Conran, Design: Intelligence Made Visible. You can get it with the U.S. cover above (image on the left, below), or the British cover here (image on the right, below). This bio is adapted from the book jacket.

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Stephen, what does design mean to you?

SB: It’s been a fantastically elusive topic. The word comes into English from the Italian disegno which means drawing. But as soon as disegno becomes design in English, it acquires another, and I think much more important meaning. It acquires a metaphorical meaning. To have designs on someone means you have personal intentions for them. To design something means you have an attitude or idea. It’s not just a matter of drawing; it’s an intellectual and practical idea, too. So design, it’s a practical art.

You are a self-labeled or an externally-labeled design guru. What got you started with design?

SB: Of course, I’m nothing of the sort, really. I’m almost entirely fraudulent in most aspects of my life, not least this one. But when newspapers and the sort in England started calling me a design guru, I took it on. The post was then vacant in this country [NB: Stephen Bayley is based in the UK]. I took it on with what I like to think of as a very nice, self-deprecating irony.

Actually, I’m a failed architect and an academic art historian by training. The Renaissance had been sort of academic-ed out of existence, researched within millimeters of credibility. I wanted a new subject. I became one of the handful of people who virtually invented the history of design as an academic subject. There’s personal history there as well. My father always had interest in cars and such when I was a kid. He worked in the aircraft industry. So, I was always in touch with fine objects.

I grew up in Liverpool, which is a bit of a rough old place. I didn’t call it design then, but I was always interested in architecture. I used to think, “Here’s one arrangement of brick, stone, steel, metal, and glass which is lovely, life enhancing, and magnificent. Here’s another one, which is using the same materials, but is dismaying and depressing. What’s the difference?” The difference is, one of them has been designed well and the other one hasn’t.

It’s not even design I’m interested in. I find most designers rather irritating, and architects, too. Fundamentally, I’m an aesthete. I have an aesthetic view of the world.

Getting back to answering your first question—what is design—I think design is an attitude more than anything else. It’s not really a discipline. People in university and art colleges struggle to turn it into a formulaic discipline. They started doing this in Germany in the ’50s, this business about systematic design. It’s just an attitude, all that tidying up, wanting to make things both more useful and beautiful.

Are there too many designers in the world?

SB: Yes. I think in a sense, there are. You can never have too many people who care about fine things. The battle for universal beauty is not quite yet won. [Laughter] We must constantly push on that. But I think in one sense—and this is the most important thing I have to say to you, in your context—for me, the great age of design is over. That’s not to say the battle for improving objects, systems, and symbols has finished. I don’t mean that at all.

The great designers worked with industry. Their history, purpose, and character is inseparable from the great age of big, industrial corporations. As you know, with some exceptions, they’ve all now passed on.

Regarding the great patrons of design, as George Nelson once said to me, “Look son, you’ve either got the church or you’ve got IBM.” We’re talking about the role of the designer as an artist in that sense. The great patrons of design in the United States are now either all defunct or have one foot in the grave. IBM no longer manufactures anything. Ford is technically bankrupt. Kodak, Polaroid—all ghosts.

These huge patrons, these industrial Medicis, they offered a fantastic scope for the professional designer, as I said, to tidy up. Eliot Noyes said to Thomas Watson, “You would prefer neatness.” And of course Watson’s mid-century IBM was neatness—its buildings, its graphics, its machines. We no longer have that.

What changed?

SB: First of all, Oriental companies learned how to do neatness. Now anybody can do it; it’s in the mainstream. Designers were like the policemen of industry. We adapted the epigraph of the book from the Voltaire quote, “It’s the purpose of art to improve on nature.” We say, “It’s the purpose of design to improve on industry.”

But we don’t do industry anymore. The great industrial designers, the Americans, the Germans—we didn’t have so many in Britain, because design became an institutionalized practice when we stopped making things—did the grammar and the punctuation of industry. If industry was a book, they edited it, you know? To use Terry Southern’s definition of what editing is, they “brightened it and tightened it.”

That doesn’t happen anymore. Asian manufacturers know you’ve got to have a good-looking product. What slightly dismays me is that people who call themselves designers today stay far from helping to tidy up the world. They’re actually adding to the gross matter, detritus, and clutter. They’re creating problems rather than solving them.

Take an architect like Zaha Hadid, who’s a sort of genius. She’s Iraqi, but she’s been living in Britain forever. She’s one of the big international names in architecture. She’s like a Frank Gehry or Rem Koolhaas. Great architecture is, like design, about problem solving. It uses practical intelligence and aesthetics to make something more functional and more beautiful.

Zaha Hadid actually creates problems. Her buildings are impossible to make, difficult to maintain, and complicated to use. That’s fine. That may meet a certain need. But it seems to me a travesty of all that I understand about design.

Another important principle is this: Designers were at their most influential when they were least well-known or had less celebrity. Think Detroit in the ’50s, Italy in the ’60s. Yes, of course we knew their names, but they were nothing like the sort of celebrities there are today. There is an inverse law operating here. The less well-known the designer, the more influential he can be. Today’s best known designer is Philippe Starck. He’s like Zaha Hadid. He’s a curious, perverse sort of genius. But in my view, his influence is very, very modest.

That inverse law is the same with CEOs. Someone did a bit of research amongst CEOs of American corporations. They found the media profile of the CEO was in inverse proportion to the financial performance of the business. It’s the same with designers and their significance. The better known they are, the less significant. Everybody wants to be a celebrity nowadays, but designers were at their most influential when they were much more anonymous in the ’50s and ’60s.

Do you think they’re spending too much time on their celebrity and not enough time designing?

SB: Yes. If you look at someone like Charles Eames, who is one of the all-time greats—I’m very aware that I’m sounding antiquarian and conservative now, but that’s not me at all—through systematic study, intelligence, and with the application of great taste and a bit of commercialism, he managed to completely reform the whole way chairs are made, sold, commercialized, and used. It was an extraordinary achievement. We don’t do that anymore. It’s almost true to say that the design of chairs stopped in about 1958 when Charles Eames’ last great chair was made. There have been no useful advances, in my view, since. People have just been dickering around.

I was flipping through my new Wired magazine yesterday, which is full of all kinds of gadgets that the nerds and geeks have to have for the holidays. One of the editors’ wish list was topped by the famous Eames chair and ottoman.

SB: That doesn’t surprise me. Frankly, until somebody discovers a new material or there’s a radical change in human physiology, we’re not going to need any more chair designs. And yet people call themselves designers, you know?

What about the Herman Miller Aeron chair that I’m sitting in right now?

SB: I think the Aeron’s pretty good. I’m overstating the case in the cause of the polemic. I’m just using Eames as an example, although I’m not a particular fan of his. I am, however, sitting on an Eames chair in my office now.

His influence must be seeping up through to you.

SB: Dieter Rams did a similar thing in the German appliance industry. What interests me is the mixture of intellect, discipline, and understanding how to make something.

I bought a Braun toaster. It looked great, but it was the worst toaster.

SB: Well that’s another issue. Designers aren’t technologists.

But functionality is part of design, isn’t it?

SB: Only partially. Our interpretation of functionality is itself subject to taste, variations of opinion. The Germans of the Bauhaus thought sitting on a chair made of angle iron was functional. But they didn’t address the fact that, in a certain sense, sitting on an overstuffed chintz sofa is also functional. I mean, a shipping container is functional, but so is Canterbury Cathedral. [Laughter]

People are now making homes out of shipping containers.

SB: Look what’s happening in the motor industry now. All of the most advanced car makers, let’s say the Germans, are now making cars which are sort of willfully un-functional, inelegant, almost ugly—

What’s an example of an un-functional car?

SB: Well, the engine goes round and it travels fast and safely. But in terms of the ergonomics and design and that sort of thing, they’re now willfully making things which are odd. You know, any South Korean can hire an Italian stylist and turn out an elegant car. Elegance is not the issue.

They’re not selling it yet in the United States, but take a look at something called the new Mini Clubman. You know that the Mini is this little English car, but it’s actually made by BMW. They’ve revived it very successfully in the past decade. There’s a new version of it called the Clubman, which I’m driving this week. It’s a fantastic little car, great fun, hugely cute, really gorgeous, and enjoyable. It’s functional in the sense that it works very well and it’s safe. But as a package, it is totally and wholly irrational, yet interestingly so. And that, nowadays in the motor industry, is how people demonstrate their expertise, their point of difference—by making things that are willfully odd and strange.

In your book there’s a heck of a lot of stuff about cars and car designers. You mention the American Lincoln Continental ’61 convertible as the best American car, ever.

SB: I think so, yes.

That’s the one that has suicide doors in the back.

SB: Yeah. Funny enough, Rolls Royce is doing similar doors now.


SB: Yes.

Was it the look of that car that makes it the best American design?

SB: I wasn’t discussing the technology. I’m interested in cars as symbolic form. I don’t think anybody’s ever made a car, certainly no Americans, quite as fine-looking as the ’61 Lincoln. It’s a masterpiece, something so huge it manages to look discrete. Visual semantics fascinate me. I’m no more interested in design than I am in painting or architecture or fashion. I’m interested in how things that are made convey meaning. How did those guys at Lincoln, using the same metal and paint as everyone else, make it look quite so extraordinary?

Compare it with what, say, Cadillac was doing at the same time. The ’61, it’s like Jackie Kennedy’s pillbox hat. It’s sort of geometrical and restrained. It had an immense influence on taste, partly because of the Kennedy association.

Is part of the success of design that it fits in with the times?

SB: Absolutely. That’s why it’s fascinating. If you want to know what America in 1957 was like, just spend an hour looking at a Chevrolet Bel Air.

My parents are Norwegian. Like many children of immigrants, when I was young I thought I wanted to go back to Norway. And then I realized I never would, because they never would have invented the ’57 Chevy.

SB: Exactly. Cars at their best have usurped the role of art. They’re sculptures which have meaning and value. People learn from them about form, color, detail, and the way light falls on objects. They learn this not from art nowadays, because art’s gone on to do something else. They learn it from looking at cars.

Yes. To that point, Richard Prince at the recent Frieze Art Fair featured a ’68 Charger

SB: I don’t think much of Richard Prince. I think he’s a hack. I think the original Dodge Charger is more interesting. We don’t need Richard Prince to tell us how wonderful the Charger was.

No, we just have to watch the original Vanishing Point.

SB: Yes, absolutely. What Prince does to the Dodge Charger is diminish it, not explain it or enhance it. But that’s getting off into art.

I can give you an entirely separate and very long talk about the international art conspiracy. These people exist in little swirling vortices of self-love. Art has become the ultimate luxury good, hasn’t it? It is, by definition, exclusive—

Right. It’s always unique. Even when it’s not unique, it’s unique. I read that if you’d invested in what they call “blue-chip” art in the ’50s, you’d be way ahead of any kind of stock portfolio.

SB: Oh, yes. What’s going on today, it’s not uninteresting. But art used to be, as Poe said about poets, “the unacknowledged legislators of society.” Now art has become art as defined by Frieze or Art Basel Miami. It’s become what moneyed people call a new asset class. It’s like hedge funds, bonds, or warrants. It’s nothing to do with aesthetics anymore. All this new money sloshing around has found that art is a tradable commodity that also gets you entré into social—

You’re referring to people walking around their houses during cocktail parties and saying to their guests, “This is a Prince,” or, “This is a Koons.” It isn’t about the ideas. Art, in a way, has lost its purpose; it’s become a commodity.

SB: The idea of art is ever present in culture. But it’s fugitive. It jumps from medium to medium to medium in different periods. There’s the Frieze phenomenon. This stuff is not daring, it’s deeply conservative. That’s another issue.

—which we won’t go into today. What about the notion of imperfection in design? The Japanese call it wabi-sabi.

SB: There’s always a huge amount to learn from the Japanese. But then, the Japanese also got it wrong one day. I remember Ettore Sottsass, the great Milanese designer, telling me that the Japanese just didn’t understand motorcycles because they made them so reliable. People who like motorbikes actually want to spend most of the time taking them apart—dismantling the gear box on the kitchen table—not have a flawless machine.

In the book, you have a dictionary of all your favorite designers—

SB: It’s not just favorite. There is an element of personal choice here, but I tried to be reasonably objective.

You obviously can’t include everything.

SB: I think it’s like rock music. It’s almost over now, the age of design. I think the age of design, like rock music, has a beginning and an end. And within that beginning, we now know where the beginning and end were, more or less. In that period, I think we’ve identified in the book all the important people and things.

So where is design headed?

SB: Well, of course, things still have to be designed. People go where the money is. In Britain, where we don’t have any industry anymore or haven’t for years and years, there’s nothing for product designers to do. We don’t make anything. So, people like Jonathan Ive have to go work for companies like Apple.

Ive is one of the only living people who actually lives up to the stature of someone like Eames or Rams. He shows that extraordinary, fanatical care beyond the obvious, which is what he puts into Apple products. That’s what makes results. Ive is an exception; basically we don’t have product designers.

But what we do have in Britain is fantastically good graphic designers, illustrators, animation artists, cinematographers, and architects, because that’s what we’re good at. The British economy now has everything to do with communications, distribution, and retail. The whole British Empire, if you like, was an expression of the British national spirit. We’re good at the Empire for the same reason we’re good at retailing. We’ve got to send the goods and ideas out across the geography.

Just to answer you question, where is design going, in this country: we have the best advertising, packaging, and graphics in the world because our economy is very strong in that area. Germans are the best car designers in the world, because they’re still making the best cars.

I just saw in the paper today Porsche is going to subsume VW. What do you make of that?

SB: There’s always been a link, of course. You know, Dr. Porsche was Hitler’s plaything.


SB: Yes. Porsche was a design consultant. Hitler called on Porsche’s design consultancy to design the Volkswagen, originally known as the Kraft durch Freude-Wagen, strength-through-joy car. It was designed to get Hitler’s volk [the citizens of a country; common people] motorized, hence the name. So it’s all coming full circle, really.

What Porsche doesn’t tell you, by the way, is that they also designed something called the V-1 Buzz Bomb, the flying bomb that fell on London. They also designed the Leopard tank. They keep quiet about that.

Right. I suppose those are records that somebody managed to burn.

SB: What do I make of Porsche and Volkswagen commercially? If you like driving Porsches, it’s still wonderful. Somebody at Porsche has to make a calculation concerning whether Porsche is going to be diminished by too explicit an association with Volkswagen. But that’s a marketing and image thing. The families that manage Volkswagen and Porsche have been in an incestuous relationship for 70 years. So there’s something sort of inevitable about what’s happening.

Your last chapter is an essay about national characteristics—

SB: I do believe that any object, anything that’s made, betrays the beliefs and the preoccupations of the people who made it. That leads into my second, but related, belief, which is something that Henry Ford, of all people, said. He said, “You can read any object like a book, provided you know how.” And I do think you can tell, based on national characteristics—

Even in this age of globalization, the Internet—

SB: Well, obviously much less so now. But I think there are still some national characteristics. My new phone is made by NEC, you know, Nippon Electric. I think I can tell its country of origin by looking at it. I think the way the details are handled on this, the radius, the textures, the colors they’ve used—I don’t think this phone could be anything other than Japanese. And I’m saying that without even looking at the name plate.

But you’ve studied this. The rest of us need a lot of design education in order to read objects—

SB: I’ve just been trying to articulate what people already know. People are interested in design, even if they don’t think they’re interested in design. That’s how we make choices, you know?

I’m about to interview Dan Hill, who’s written a book called Emotionomics. In this day and age, we’re beginning to understand that very little happens in the rational realm. A lot of our decisions are made irrationally.

SB: Absolutely. That’s what I’ve always believed. That’s exactly what I meant before when I was talking about functionality. It’s a laudable objective, but let’s not seduce ourselves into thinking it can be defined in absolute terms.

Your book is just gorgeous to strum through.

SB: The guy who designed it is Jonathan Christie. Both Terence Conran and I think he has done a magnificent job. It is a very beautiful book.

Yes, it’s massively beautiful. Congratulations.

SB: Thank you.

Email: guru (at) –
UK book: [Stephen, himself, prefers this cover design, by the way.—CM]
Design: Intelligence Made Visible

US book:
Design: Intelligence Made Visible