My father Stephen has done a lot of pretty cool things that have been significant in recent British history. He started something called the Boilerhouse Project at the V&A in the 80s, set up the Design Museum, wrote a book called <i>Sex, Drink and Fast...
Photo of Bruno and Stephen by Flo Bayley
My father Stephen has done a lot of pretty cool things that have been significant in recent British history. He started something called the Boilerhouse Project at the V&A in the 80s, set up the Design Museum, wrote a book called Sex, Drink and Fast Cars and didn’t let me watch TV when I was little, which is probably the only reason I like drawing and reading. I have never really got round to talking to him about serious things as we spend most of the time arguing about whether or not I should tread on the bottom step of the stairs (apparently it wears out the carpet disproportionately resulting in an aesthetically displeasing lack of symmetry). So for the History issue I thought I would ask him about stuff like design, on which he claims to be an expert.
Vice: So Dad, what has design done for Britain over the last 100 years?
Stephen Bayley: There is a movement in contemporary publications to think of “design” as something that achingly cool people in Tokyo, New York or east London do—that’s not what I think design is. We need to get this clear. Design is an attempt to apply proper understanding to everyday objects. It’s not about tricky, expensive, rare stuff. Design is everyday things. When I went to university I learned about the French philosophers when I was in the throes of intellectual pretension— Barthes, Foucault and the rest of them. They began to study steak and chips, new cars, the everyday. That is design. It’s paying proper attention to ordinary things.
OK, so in the last 100 years what have been the five most important moments in design that have shaped today’s Britain?
I would have to say the whole “garden city movement”—the idea of making pleasant homes for places like Port Sunlight or Letchworth was immensely important and unique in world civilisation. In the 1930s London transport––it’s hard to believe this now––but in the 30s it was an absolutely superlative example of an intelligent public service organisation. Forget godforsaken Ken Livingstone, the man who ran it, Frank Pick, had a vision. He hired superlative architects and great designers like those who made the London Tube map. Thirdly, in the 1950s, isolated from continental sophistication and the glamour and wealth of America, artists like Richard Hamilton, and Eduardo Paolozzi created pop art. People often think of pop art as American but it’s not, it is British. Our artists, starved of colour and delight at home, created it. Perhaps the fourth thing would have to be the extraordinary explosion of popular culture in the 1960s which people like Malcolm McClaren were at the fag-end of.
Not in the way you are thinking. The fifth thing would have to be the greatest advertising ever. The best advertising agencies have been British. In the 80s Paul Arden, who died recently, was doing amazing things. Bogle Hegarty made the best ads ever. People often say that the British are visually illiterate but I think that’s totally wrong—just look at the standards of advertising and graphics we have in this country—they are so far beyond the competition. That’s my five things.
Whose taste has most affected the British mentality over the last 50-60 years?
I think Elizabeth David, the cookery writer who completely changed perception in the country, not because of what she did with her spatula and frying pan, but in the 50s she introduced the British to the idea of cooking non-beige food. Just saying “garlic, oil, lemon” was like speaking pornography in those days. And I guess my dear friend Terence Conran, miserable old bastard that he is, took what Elizabeth David was saying about food and thought, “What do people want in their kitchens and dining rooms to go with it?” They are to me the two who changed British attitudes to culture and design.
On this note, talk me through the whole ketchup issue? Why can’t I put it on the table in a plastic bottle?
I think everything is important. It’s more pleasant to put ketchup in a nice bowl. I want things to look good. I think it is better, more exciting if it’s in a white bowl. Even if you are having a burger, isn’t it nicer to have it look nice? Why not do things properly?
Can history hold us back, culturally?
It certainly can. The English disease is not sodomy and the lash—it is a sentimental nostalgia for a past that probably never existed. I think one must always learn from the past but it is something we should build on rather than constantly refer back to. In terms of architecture especially—the terrible problem with architecture in England is that we have such an extraordinary inheritance of fine buildings from the past that there has been little impetus to try new things.
Is this why we have mock-Tudor houses? Are they a symptom of the English disease?
Exactly. Heritage is important but you must also build the heritage of the future. The best idea ever on history was in an Italian novel The Leopard by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, which was published posthumously. It had this line about the decline of a Sicilian dynasty: “If you want things to stay the same, they are going to have to change”. That is entirely my view. Without change everything is stultified.
Has any British government made great strides in promoting culture and design?
Governments are increasingly irrelevant—the big decisions about our lives are made elsewhere. I am a great believer in parliamentary democracy as an idea but frankly the destiny of our civilisation is not decided in parliament but in finance and business. Anyone who is seriously bright these days goes into the city, or media—not into politics. That goes for design and culture as well as foreign policy.
What about Maggie? You met her, didn’t you?
I met her a few times. Once when we were fundraising for the Design Museum I had to organise a dinner at Downing Street. Her private secretary told me that “the PM does not like anything that has to be chewed, nothing must interrupt conversation”. I was also required to take £120 in cash to pay the washing up staff at Number 10. There was a bit of a black economy going on there. A great number of people I know who met her say she was very attractive.
Really? I always thought she was pretty terrifying. Like a raptor in a wig.
Well, she certainly had very nice hands, and was always very well turned out, unlike most politicians today. She was put through it by Tim Bell, the ex-Saatchi man, who got her teeth done and taught her how to speak. She was a perfectly formed object. I think her main problem was that she was a total philistine.
Which country or regime has benefited the most from good design?
The Nazis benefited hugely from great graphics and industrial design, but I suppose the civilised answer would be Italy. If you give reverential attention to making good coffee you end up with exquisite coffee machines. That is why they have wonderful cars, clothes and so on. Thirty years ago when I stayed in a working-class district of Rome called Travestere, Italian men would go home at lunch to press their trousers.
So why do they dress like such retards now? With backpacks on their fronts and blazers screenprinted with skulls?
I don’t know. I thought what I just said was so important, and what you have just said has totally destroyed it.
Don’t worry. I am too old to care.