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

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

Charlotte Cripps
Monday 22 October 2012 12:29 BST

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)

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