Ugly is the new beautiful: From aesthetic monstrosity to design masterpiece

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

Aesthetic values constantly change – today's monstrosity is tomorrow's masterpiece. So says Stephen Bayley, whose new book challenges all our preconceptions about ugliness, as he tells Charlotte Cripps

At the launch tonight of Design Museum co-founder Stephen Bayley's new book, Ugly: the Aesthetics of Everything, guests will be served ugly canapés and ugly cocktails.

In attendance will be Mugly, an eight-year-old hairless Chinese Crested dog from Peterborough, who is the recent winner of the Ugliest Dog in the World contest, held annually in California, as well as models from the Ugly Model agency, including one woman credited with "looking like a fish".

At what is billed as London's first "ugly party", a grand café will be decked out with "ghoulish objects" and "revolting curios", including a stuffed pug giving birth to a flying pig and blown-up images from Bayley's book, including one of Myra Hindley. "My barman is working on a grey- coloured cocktail and Martinis with gherkins in them," says Bayley. "Talking about beauty is boring – when you get talking about ugliness it gets interesting."

His book Ugly explores the complexities of ugliness and makes the point that without ugliness, there would be no beauty. He has cherry-picked items for his book, including kitsch flying ducks, hideous pink-haired troll dolls – even the postmodernist architecture of the Sainsbury Wing of the National Gallery gets singled out. Ugliness is fascinating, he claims – take the repugnant The Ugly Duchess by Quentin Massys – "It's one of the most popular postcards sold in London's National Gallery shop and rivals the sales of Monet's tranquil Water-Lilies," he says.

There are also images of the Eiffel Tower and the Albert Memorial: "In 1887 leading Paris intellectuals ganged up and said the Eiffel Tower, which was being built, was a 'hateful column of bolted tin… useless and monstrous'", he says. "Now the Eiffel Tower is regarded as one of the most touching, romantic French monuments. The Albert Memorial was loathed and detested – now it is charming, delightful and evocative."

There are no chapters in Ugly, which is Bayley's sequel to Taste, published 1991; instead it's full of long paragraphs of ideas exploring ugliness – a subject not many people have written about.

"I'm not being prescriptive about what is ugly – I'm just provoking ideas about our assumptions of ugliness," says Bayley.

"I'm not looking for agreement. When we talk about design, it is this attempt to introduce beauty by the Modern movement. They told us that if things were functional they would be beautiful – but as soon as you investigate what is beauty – I would say the evidence is mixed. A bomb-dropping Boeing B-52 is extraordinarily functional, but is it beautiful even though it is morally repugnant? What about a gun?

"Our view of what is and what isn't beautiful changes over time. Maybe there are no permanent values in the world of art. It is certainly a question that needs to be asked. If the whole world was beautiful it would in fact be extremely boring. We need a measure of ugliness to understand beauty. You can only understand heaven if you have a concept of hell. "

Bayley focuses on Ernö Goldfinger's Trellick Tower in west London: "If there ever was a test for taste, it's this," he says. The tall housing block built in 1972 was listed by English Heritage in 1998. "It was deplored by many as a brutalist horror. Now half the world regards it as an eyesore – the other half regards it as heroic and uplifting. Maybe they are both are right. Any minute now Prince Charles will come to admire it. "

Gebrüder Thonet's mass-produced Model No. 14 chair (1859), the original café chair, was revered by Le Corbusier as "the ultimate in elegant design".

"I like the chair – I like clean, unfussy, undecorated things – but I don't think it's inevitably, timelessly perfect," says Bayley, who also includes an image of an Amorphophallus titanum, known as the corpse flower, which "smells of death" and looks phallic. "Can nature be ugly? Personally, I think it can," he says.

There is no end to the fascination of ugliness for Bayley, whose book opens with a photograph of a pig and then Frankenstein. He adds: "If you are talking to architecture students and you ask them to deliberately design something ugly, it is very difficult. It is very difficult to create ugliness – what we call ugly seems to be accidental."

But whether you would want Matthias Grunewald's oil painting The Isenheim Altarpiece (1516) of a man with skin disease on your wall is quite another matter. Or indeed Hieronymus Bosch's triptych The Garden of Earthly Delights (c.1490-1510) depicting Hell, and full of disfigurements and mutations.

There is an image, too, of John Constable's Windmill among Houses and Rainbow – not because it is ugly. "I want to make the point that while we are all worried about the industrialisation of the countryside, this is what Constable's idyllic scenes of the countryside were often about."

Bayley also includes gargoyles from Notre-Dame de Paris, and anti-Jewish Nazi propaganda posters, in which Jews are depicted as ugly caricatures.

One section of the book, "The problem with hair", has images of the monster in I was a Teenage Werewolf (1957), which shows, he says, "how abnormal hair retains a disturbing power".

"Firstly if you take a long view of the history of art, ideas about beauty are not permanent – and secondly, things that are ugly can be fascinating and perversely attractive" says Bayley. "No matter what your views, you couldn't read this book and not either come out lacerated, stimulated, annoyed or in total agreement with my genius. It's not a historical narrative but it's a collection of consistent and interesting and stimulating ideas."

'Ugly: the Aesthetics of Everything', by Stephen Bayley, is published by Goodman Fiell (£25)

Arts and Entertainment
Nick Hewer is to leave The Apprentice after 10 years

TV review Nick Hewer, the man whose eyebrows speak a thousand words, is set to leave The Apprentice

Arts and Entertainment
Female fans want more explicit male sex in Game of Thrones, George R R Martin says

film George RR Martin owns a cinema in Santa Fe

Arts and Entertainment
Clued up: John Lynch and Gillian Anderson in ‘The Fall’

TV review

Arts and Entertainment
The Baker (James Corden) struggles with Lilla Crawford’s Little Red Riding Hood

film...all the better to bamboozle us
Arts and Entertainment
English: Romantic Landscape

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump


Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

Arts and Entertainment
William Pooley from Suffolk is flying out to Free Town, Sierra Leone, to continue working in health centres to fight Ebola after surviving the disease himself

Arts and Entertainment
The Newsroom creator Aaron Sorkin

Arts and Entertainment
Matt Berry (centre), the star of Channel 4 sitcom 'Toast of London'

TVA disappointingly dull denouement
Arts and Entertainment
Tales from the cryptanalyst: Benedict Cumberbatch in 'The Imitation Game'

Arts and Entertainment
Pixie Lott has been voted off Strictly Come Dancing 2014

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Homeless Veterans appeal: 'You look for someone who's an inspiration and try to be like them'

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
    Could cannabis oil reverse the effects of cancer?

    Could cannabis oil reverse effects of cancer?

    As a film following six patients receiving the controversial treatment is released, Kate Hilpern uncovers a very slippery issue
    The Interview movie review: You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here

    The Interview movie review

    You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here
    Serial mania has propelled podcasts into the cultural mainstream

    How podcasts became mainstream

    People have consumed gripping armchair investigation Serial with a relish typically reserved for box-set binges
    Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up for hipster marketing companies

    Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up

    Kevin Lee Light, aka "Jesus", is the newest client of creative agency Mother while rival agency Anomaly has launched Sexy Jesus, depicting the Messiah in a series of Athena-style poses
    Rosetta space mission voted most important scientific breakthrough of 2014

    A memorable year for science – if not for mice

    The most important scientific breakthroughs of 2014
    Christmas cocktails to make you merry: From eggnog to Brown Betty and Rum Bumpo

    Christmas cocktails to make you merry

    Mulled wine is an essential seasonal treat. But now drinkers are rediscovering other traditional festive tipples. Angela Clutton raises a glass to Christmas cocktails
    5 best activity trackers

    Fitness technology: 5 best activity trackers

    Up the ante in your regimen and change the habits of a lifetime with this wearable tech
    Paul Scholes column: It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves

    Paul Scholes column

    It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves
    Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

    Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

    Club World Cup kicked into the long grass by the continued farce surrounding Blatter, Garcia, Russia and Qatar
    Frank Warren column: 2014 – boxing is back and winning new fans

    Frank Warren: Boxing is back and winning new fans

    2014 proves it's now one of sport's biggest hitters again
    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

    Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

    The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
    Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

    Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

    The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
    Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

    The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

    Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas