'I want to rid the world of ugliness'
DESIGN: British design guru Stephen Bayley dislikes many things (New Labour, Old Labour, teamwork and, most of all, anything ugly). He shares his 'aesthetic view of the world' with Penelope Dening, in advance of a lecture in Dublin tonight
To describe Stephen Bayley as a design consultant - as he does in his CV - is as useful as calling Michelangelo a muralist. The term "style guru" - used by newspapers when Bayley's highly-charged opinions are requisitioned - is scarcely an improvement, though Bayley himself is not bothered. "Journalists always need a handle," he says, "so if that's the handle they find easy and convenient, then fine, because it means I'm not called ex-director of the Design Museum, ex-creative director of the Dome, ex-viable-person. So I encourage it with what I like to think of as acute self-deprecating irony. As somebody once said, a bad reputation never did anybody any harm."
We meet in his south London office, a soothing semi-basement in grey and oatmeal, the sparkling espresso machine on the zinc bar contrasting with a metal garden table, its painted top suitably distressed.
He arrives flustered and late. First, he noticed a button missing from his shirt, so had to return home to change it - slovenliness coming next to tastelessness in the Bayley lexicon of design acceptability. Then there was nowhere to park the car, "not even illegally", he continues, as the erstwhile apology segues into a rant.
The state of inner-London streets was given full voice recently in an "open letter" in the Observer directed at London's high-profile mayor, Ken Livingstone, whom Bayley holds personally responsible for the "Orwellian nightmare" of filthy streets "micro-managed by philistines".
Livingstone has been the target of Bayley's London-related ire for some time. "He's a politician. He's not interested in doing things, he's interested in securing himself in power. I can't think of anybody who I detest more virulently. Dishonest, deceitful, serpentine, vengeful, spiteful, crude, philistine. An utterly repellent little person."
Stephen Bayley is not one to mince his words. He left the Design Museum after a spat with his co-founder Terence Conran. He left the Millennium Dome, for which he had been creative director, after Peter Mandelson - another politician, and project overseer - was photographed in Disneyland getting ideas, though this was only the final straw in a dizzying mis-match of incendiary egos.
"Yes, I do flounce out of things," says Bayley, with a certain grim satisfaction. "But it's not me that changes, it's the circumstance." The circumstance of his departure from the Dome is chronicled in Labour Camp (published in 1998), a biting attack on Cool Britannia and general bursting of the Blair-ite bubble. "I have never construed it as my business to work with anybody, "he continues. "I like doing things by myself. To use atrocious management jargon, I am not a team player. And if I think there's just one way of doing it, it's absolutely not negotiable. I am not interested in consensus, meetings, sharing opinions. That sounds horribly authoritarian and utterly megalomaniac and I don't mean that. But I only ever talk about things that I know about, and believe in with fixed passion."
The constant in the Bayley spectrum of passions is architecture. Although he had always longed to be an architect - and still does - seven years of study seemed too daunting at the time, so he opted for art history instead. His first job was teaching the history of architecture at Liverpool University, where the biggest influence on his perception of the world (after discovering Niklaus Pevsner "the pioneer of modern design") was Quentin Hughes, "a fabulous architect who 'was architecture' in Liverpool," and who died earlier this year.
"Liverpool was a fairly gritty place and I suddenly realised that there was this transforming ability, call it architecture, call it design, an ability to use materials and ideas and put them together in a way which made life more beautiful and more agreeable.
"Liverpool can be hauntingly beautiful, but also terrifyingly ugly. I mean, you can see brick, stone, steel, glass used in one way to make something utterly magnificent, and brick, stone, steel, glass used another way to make something absolutely hideous. And what is the difference between the two? Design is a useless word. It means so much it's almost meaningless."
His love of beautiful things began with cars - his father had a Jaguar - and cars remain an abiding passion, currently indulged via a column in the Daily Telegraph. ("I do that just for fun. It's like Christmas every week: somebody sends around a new car. I don't believe there is anybody who wouldn't find that amusing. Even Mr Livingstone, though he can't drive.")
"My father used to work in an aircraft factory and when I was a kid, machine tools intuitively attracted me. Design for me has always been about ordinary things done extraordinarily well, not about precious, expensive things."
The Bayley ethos emerged, fully formed, in In Good Shape, published in 1979. "I don't think I'm being hopelessly vainglorious to say that it was probably the first book of its kind. The first book to look at aeroplanes, motor cars, desk lamps. In those days, no one - no newspaper or magazine - wrote anything on design. If they did it was about macramé baskets on the women's page: it wasn't considered a serious subject."
In the "minuscule" world of design, it came to the attention of Terence Conran. "It was a moment in Terence's life when Habitat was still a private company. He was exceedingly rich by most standards, but not super-mega-rich, and had decided he wanted to do something with some of the money that he'd made out of Habitat. He wanted to provide the resources for the students of the future, he told me. He had studied textile collections at the V&A and realised that if you wanted to study more contemporary stuff, there was absolutely nowhere to go." The result was the Boilerhouse Project at the Victoria and Albert Museum, where Bayley staged more than 20 exhibitions, including "Coke! Designing a megabrand" rivalling shows devoted to Tutankhamun and the Impressionists in sheer visitor numbers. In 1989 the Design Museum itself opened, just south of Tower Bridge, with Bayley still at the helm.
Not every design spat in the UK has Stephen Bayley as a key player, but he is rarely out of the picture entirely. When James Dyson resigned as chairman of the Design Museum in recent days, affronted by the current exhibition featuring flower-arranger Constance Spry, Bayley was soon adding his spoonful of gunpowder to the already explosive mix.
"I just felt there was so much tosh being spoken that when I was asked to write something about it, I thought I should. After all, it was a bit of a stretch for Dyson to say that the museum is not corresponding to its original purpose when he wasn't around when the original purpose was construed."
Bayley and his wife, illustrator and graphic designer Flo Bayley, met while working at Conran. As "interested-but-recklessly-incompetent" cooks, they decided they needed culinary guidance and found it in Venice under the tutelage of Italian legend Marcella Hazan. "It was such a revelation," recalls Bayley. "And I'm talking about design principles here. She doesn't use recipes. To use a recipe is like Richard Rogers trying to impose a landmark without having thought about where it's going. You see what's available." No one, he believes, could be truly interested in architecture and design and not be interested in food. "The sensibility is the same. Design for me is a shorthand for describing a certain attitude for how things should be done."
That attitude is currently missing in a certain quarter of the Bayley household, he admits. "Our son will have a baked bean sandwich cooked in a sandwich toaster, unbelievably repellent things." As for his clothes - the striped-shirted father passes a hand across his furrowed brow. "I don't knowhow to describe it really. He is in such defiance of our aesthetic values, that it's artful. It's genius. He never fails in every opportunity."
Anything that affronts Stephen Bayley's sensibilities, he finds personally painful. "Fundamentally, my view of the world is an aesthetic one. I know that sounds frightfully limpwristed, but for me, design is about making ordinary things more beautiful and pleasing. The campaign I'm on isn't James Dyson problem-solving through technology - although I find that fascinating - my campaign is just to edit clutter and ugliness out of the world."
Everything, in Bayley's view, betrays the beliefs and preoccupations of the people who made it. "My value system - perhaps not consciously - is based on exactly the same value system the Greeks had: things that are good, look good. Moral people are beautiful people. I don't mean that quite literally, but badness shows, and goodness expresses itself."
As for the future, notwithstanding Bayley's own admission that he is "not much good at jobs", one recent approach could seriously tempt him to return to the institutional fold. "English Heritage has asked me to be the new street czar. And I feel so strongly about mess on the street, it makes me sob. But I would want to be given summary powers to punish - indeed, capitally punish - people who transgress my aesthetic standards, though they're unlikely to give me the powers I want." Ken Livingstone could be in for a rough ride.
Stephen Bayley delivers the William H. Walsh lecture to the Institute of Designers in Ireland, in the Bank of Ireland Arts Centre, Foster Place, Dublin 2 at 3 p.m. today. A small number of tickets (€10) may be available on the door