From his earliest days this critic, author and commentator has been involved with design. Even as a baby he was snapped with a iconic car, not a teddy, says Jamie Mitchell
Design critic, author and cultural commentator Stephen Bayley is a man whose reputation precedes him. A quick search on the internet describes an outspoken aesthete, an elitist whose work – including the book Woman as Design, in which he invites us to consider the female form as we might the body of a classic car – invites controversy. There is also the idea that anyone who refers to himself as a design guru must have boundless self-confidence. Or is it arrogance?
In person, however, Bayley is affable, witty and with a stand-out passion for design. ‘I am your plaything’, he assures me at the beginning of our interview. ‘Ask me whatever you like.’
Born in Cardiff in 1951, Bayley grew up in Liverpool, which he remembers as ‘a seething cauldron of popular culture’ and a city whose architecture had a formative influence on him. ‘I didn’t grow up in any hardship myself,’ he says in an accent that bears no trace of his North West roots, ‘but when you grow up somewhere like Liverpool you do see hardship. I was always aware that certain environments and buildings were lovely and certain others were not. You can’t grow up in Liverpool and not notice architecture.’
He was, he admits, ‘a spoilt and petulant only child’, and his father, who worked in the aircraft industry and used to take his son around aircraft factories, had a big influence on the way he learned to see the world around him. ‘My father always had nice cars when I was young,’ Bayley says. ‘In the first photograph of me as a child I’m sitting on the bonnet of my father’s Georges Roesch Talbot– I wasn’t photographed with a teddy bear.’
He studied at Manchester University and Liverpool School of Architecture, and in his 20s lectured in the history of art at the University of Kent. In 1979 he began working for Terence Conran who asked him to set up the Boilerhouse, Britain’s first permanent exhibition space for design, in the basement of the V&A.
As the precursor to London’s Design Museum, the Boilerhouse hosted 20 exhibitions in five years, including ones on Ford, Sony, Issey Miyake and Coca-Cola, before closing in 1989. Then Bayley founded the Design Museum near London’s Tower Bridge. He never actually ran the Design Museum, believing, as he says, that ‘the person who starts a business isn’t always the best person to run it’. But 20 years later he returns, to chair the panel of judges at this year’s Brit Insurance Design Awards.
‘A large part of me thinks never go back, but I was very pleased when Deyan [Sudjic, director of the Design Museum] asked me to chair the awards,’ he says. ‘I’m not so much interested in promoting the work of individual designers as I am in getting the public interested in the world around them, and it’s a great opportunity to re-engage with something I feel very strongly about.’
How, I wonder, will the outspoken design guru cope as chairman of a panel of similarly outspoken judges, including the writer Will Self? ‘I’m probably the world’s most unsuitable chairman,’ he admits. ‘The chairman shouldn’t impose his opinions – his role is to moderate the opinions of others – so the big challenge for me is to try to coordinate and harmonise the process, which actually might be very good for me. It might.’
So has Bayley, now 59, mellowed? Not much. He’s fiercely critical of ‘superstar designers’ who he accuses of prioritising their own celebrity over the quality of their work. ‘I’ve always thought that design is at its most significant when the designer is least well-known,’ he says. ‘There’s a sort of inverse law: the less well-known the designer, the more important and influential is his work.
‘Philippe Stark, for example: he’s a clever guy, but there’s no doubt in my mind that in the history of design he will be nothing more than a footnote.’
Architects are also in the firing line: ‘[Architecture] has always been terribly egotistical,’ he says, ‘but as the process becomes progressively deskilled the architect’s ego has become commensurately larger. Architects are making more and more claims for less and less achievement.’
Often acerbic, always eloquent, Bayley has a sort of mental Rolodex of quotes to support his assertions, and here he whips out a favourite from the late author John Updike: ‘Celebrity is a mask that eats into the face.’ Perhaps so, but Updike’s warning about the nature of fame: ‘One can either see or be seen', is not one that Bayley has always heeded.
In 1997 he took on the high-profile job of creative director of the Millennium Dome, a project from which he was able to emerge with his reputation reasonably untarnished. ‘Somebody called me to ask if I’d like to do it,’ he explains. ‘I thought about it over the weekend, went back to them and asked, “Are you serious? You’re going to spend this much money on raising popular awareness of architecture and design? Then, yeah, sure. I’m in”.’
That, he says, was the good part. ‘Thereafter, everything I suggested was second-guessed, interfered with and frustrated.’ Bayley famously clashed with so-called ‘Dome minister’ Peter Mandelson, eventually resigning after only a few months on the project, and generating some interesting headlines in the process.
He now describes the affair as ‘the funniest thing I’ve ever been involved in’, but he also regrets the wasted opportunity. ‘In the end,’ he says, ‘those two things, creativity and politics, simply don’t work together.’
In articles for The Observer (he has been the design critic since 2007) Bayley is as provocative and outspoken as ever, but says he isn’t interested in courting controversy. ‘I don’t set out to be outspoken – only a bumptious fool would do that. That may be the result, but it’s not the intention. I’ve very strong principles and I believe in what I say.’
He does, however, object to being called elitist: ‘For me, excellence in design means many things, but perhaps overwhelmingly design means the ordinary thing done extraordinarily well.’ He recalls an interview with the journalist Lynn Barber in which she found it risible that he cared about the appearance of teapots, something he says she ‘construed to be arrogant and effete elitism’.
‘Really it’s quite the opposite,’ he wrote in response. ‘My inspiration has always been that of the old Italian Communist Party – the best salami for everyone! Design is (at least meant to be) the ultimate in pop acceptability.’
This article was first published in fx Magazine.