Essence of England | Chapter 5 ~ Stephen Bayley


Florence Robson

Essence of England | True Grace

In our Essence of England series, we speak to values-aligned creatives, entrepreneurs and familiar faces from across the South West about their lives, work and what ‘Englishness’ means to them.

Stephen Bayley

Once described as the “second most intelligent man in Britain”, Stephen Bayley is an author, critic, columnist, broadcaster, consultant, debater and curator. With Sir Terence Conran, he created the influential Boilerhouse Project in the Victoria & Albert Museum, Britain's first permanent exhibition of design. The gallery was so successful that it was moved to its own premises, reopening as the now world-famous Design Museum.

Over the past forty years, Bayley’s writing has changed the popular perception of design (indeed, he was the person for whom the term “design guru” was coined). He has written numerous books, with the most recent including ‘The Art of Living’, ‘The Age of Combustion’ ‘Terence: The Man who Invented Design’, and ‘Value: What Money Can’t Buy’.

We corresponded with Bayley to get his thoughts on all things British design and architecture, whether taste is subjective, and why he is suspicious of nostalgia.

What (or who) encapsulates great British design? 

Like Einstein, I’m suspicious of nationalism.  And this question leads you into the boring answer that begins with Spitfire, and goes onto Routemaster bus and Mini.  So, remember the distinctive and efficient wings of the Spitfire were designed by a Canadian woman. The Routemaster was the work of an apprentice of the heroic New York and Palm Springs vulgarian Raymond Loewy. And Alec – Mini – Issigonis was a Greek from Smyrna. 

The genius of British design is, I think, the ability to synthesise and integrate from diverse sources. Westminster Abbey was designed by a Frenchman. The famous English country houses were mostly derived from designs by a gentleman from the Veneto. Lutyens, perhaps our most original architect, used bizarrely eclectic sources.

But there’s also that wonderful national preference for make-do and lash-up as opposed to highfalutin’ theorising or academic research. I adore the picture of Frank Whittle, dressed like a lab assistant, creating the jet engine while holding a mug of tea in one hand.

What is particularly unique about Liverpudlian architecture?

You can’t, as I did, grow up in Liverpool and not be impressed, one way or another, by the power of architecture. Buildings, good and bad, have an unavoidable presence. No-one, for example, has any recollection of what Manchester or Birmingham look like, but Liverpool is immediately recognisable from its skyline.  All great ports – Trieste and New York, for example – have interesting buildings.  

But Liverpool is exceptional. I think partly because it is, literally, the end of the road : it’s a terminus looking out across the Atlantic, closer in spirit to New York than London. And it was also the product of very great wealth: Liverpool is the ultimate expression of a commercial port in the Imperial age. But there’s a residual melancholy too: long before it was fashionable to say so, people were aware that the architectural magnificence was, to a degree, bought by the horrors of The Middle Passage.

You've written that "car design is being forced up an ever tightening spiral of creativity." Do you feel we’re at the end of an era in terms of car design – and how do you feel about the era to come? 

That was certainly true once. But the private car is entering its endgame. The automobile is - or was - the ultimate analogue machine and mankind’s most ingenious, seductive and damaging invention. For over a century, cars provided reference points for our notions of style, status and desire. In design terms, the Age of Combustion was as rich and varied as architecture’s Baroque – and far more popular. And now it is coming to an end, as the combustion-engine is superseded by the battery and cars become wheeled computers, running on AI not oil. 

What are some particularly wonderful examples of British car design, and why?

Mini, of course: a masterpiece of ingenuity and efficient packaging. The E-Type Jaguar: even Enzo Ferrari conceded that it was the most beautiful car ever.  Range-Rover: a brilliant answer to a question no-one had asked. AC Ace: a Jungian archetype of the ‘sportscar’. Lotus XI: not that I am one to contradict Commendatore Ferrari, but this is not just the most beautiful car, but the most beautiful machine of all time.

“Everything in life is a matter of taste.”
— Stephen Bayley

What is the impact of architecture on our health and mindsets?

Architecture is more important than politics because it has a more lasting effect on our mood. Nothing affects our well-being more than the way we live. And, unlike politicians, buildings cannot lie.

How far do you believe that taste in design is subjective?

Everything in life is a matter of taste. Every decision we make is inspired by our conscious – or unconscious – preferences. You simply cannot get away from it.  There’s no point in saying “I don’t care what I look like. I just wear a T-shirt and jeans”.  What that means is “I care a damn’ lot about what I look like, I just want you to know I'm all about a T-shirt and jeans". Eventually, the sinister discipline of neuro-aesthetics will discover to what extent our tastes are hard-wired. But until that distant day, it's all a glorious mystery. However, tribal behaviour and context are significant  influences. You'd feel odd wearing a Hawaiian shirt and pool slides in The Boston Athenaeum. And tomato ketchup tastes great on chips, but awful on foie gras.

What would be on the agenda for your ideal London weekend ?

I'm afraid I don't distinguish between weekends and weekdays. The concept of "weekend" creates a false and ruinous dynamic of winding down and winding up.  That said, highly evolved city dwellers, and I am an apex predator among committed urbanites, avoid doing anything that a visitor or tourist would regard as obligatory. I have, for example, been to the London theatre only twice in my life. I walked out half way through the last performance and hope never to have to go to one again. Our strategy for dealing with such a huge and demanding city is to conceptualise one's own quartier as a village and never go far beyond it. 

My tastes are very simple. I merely hope to have done enough exercise in the morning - running or tennis - to licence my spending the rest of the day in the garden with books and several glasses of wine. Until I start cooking in the evening.

What does Essence of England mean to you?

Most of all, literacy and wit.  Especially irony. Oh, and nostalgia too, I suppose.

But I’m as suspicious of nostalgia as I am of nationalism. And nostalgia is everywhere. In fact, I'd say it's the real English Disease. I suffer from it myself, even if I am in denial. I think because we first experienced industrialisation and urbanisation on this island, we have a special reverence for a vaguely remembered bucolic past.

It was one that never really existed: country life was really rather beastly, a healthy grave. But that doesn't stop it being a powerful, if vague, memory. I am, for example, mad about trees.  As the diarist John Evelyn observed, trees are the country’s “wealth, armament and grace”.

And, of course, the real Essence of England is the incomparable language. We are third rank in the visual arts and music, but unrivalled in literature. Take this as an example. After the Great Fire, that same John Evelyn was very concerned about the new industries starting-up, the polluters of his day. He wanted to “Banish and proscribe those Hellish Volcanoes, disgorging from the Brew-houses, Dope and Salt-Boilers, Chandlers, Hat-makers, Glass-houses, Forges, Lime Kilns, and the Trades, using such quantities of Sea coals, one of whose Funnels vomits more Smoak than all the Culinary and Chamber-fires of a whole Parish, perniciously infecting the ambient Air, with a black melancholy Canopy, to the detriment of the most Valuable Moveables and Furniture of the inhabitants, and the whole Country about it".

Brilliant stuff! And that's exactly what happened when we traded the healthy grave for the busy circus of city life. I did say irony was essential, didn't I ?

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