What Is Ugly?

A new book interrogates the hideous.
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The Overlook Press

If beauty is in the eye of the beholder, ugly must be there too. The design world is obsessed with celebrating beauty and expunging ugly, but these standards are fluid. This is why design critic Stephen Bayley, creator of the London’s Design Museum and former creative director for Terence Conran, curated a 1991 Victoria and Albert Museum exhibition and book titled Taste, which took on the tough task of figuring out why people like what they like. His most recent book, Ugly: The Aesthetics of Everything picks up where Taste left off.

In a recent email, he described Ugly as an answer to “design bores telling me such-and-such is ‘good design’ when what they really meant was ‘this is my taste.’” Since Bayley believes much of the design world's rhetoric is based on “unstable and untested arguments about beauty,” he decided to “rehabilitate neglected, but useful notions” of taste and ugliness and develop his own pronouncements. 

Bayley wants to explain why horrors are horrible and delights are delightful. “If it is ‘taste’ that helps us organize our preferences,” he asks, is it a “mixture of inherited proclivities and learnt aspirations?” While he does not have the answer, “my own feeling," he said, “is that underneath the continuously churning and turning tides of taste, there are principles of art-and-design that are universally pleasing. Mondrian has, I am sure, something in common with Praxiteles.”

Bayley’s taste drives him to prefer “silence, space, and classical proportions.” He can stare all day at the boxer engine of a BMW bike and Brunelleschi's Pazzi Chapel. Therefore, to him, ugly should be the exact opposite: “My most ugly building is anything in late-period Philip Johnson,” he said, “I find dirt and clutter ugly. I dislike bright colors. I revere elegance and wit and deplore loudness whether real or metaphorical. I don't much care for any music, but greatly prefer classical quartets to rock. I detest cheerful music because it makes me sad and I enjoy solemn masses, which I find life-enhancing and sometimes make me giggle.”

The air-cooled machine-gun and the B-52 bomber, discussed in the book, remind him that Ugly is more about questions than answers. “I find the plane awe-inspiring and I marvel at the technical mastery that achieved it,” he said. “If awe and marvel have something to do with beauty, which I think they do, then a B-52 is beautiful.  But then again its purpose is repellent so does that make it ugly?”  Bayley doesn’t know, but then Plato couldn't answer this question either. “Plato was fascinated by the gruesome sight of corpses beneath the executioner's dais. Ugly or beautiful?” he asks. “Perhaps, in their power to excite speculation and stir emotions, a bit of each.” Or maybe ugly is not measured by how far one averts the eyes. People are happy to watch all kinds of brutal—or ugly—happenings in films, photographs, and real life.

 “What's certain is that taste changes,” Bayley said. “What is approved as beautiful in one era will be disdained as ugly in the next. It's a stirring thought that no great artist or writer has maintained a continuously high critical reputation. In the 18th century Shakespeare was regarded as a hick and Michelangelo as a brute.”

Then there are those for whom ugliness is a virtue, what Bayley called “pro-ugliness.” He considers his book to be pro-ugly. “If you, as I do, accept that a totally beautiful world, say one designed by Brunelleschi with Dieter Rams furniture, would be very boring, then it follows that you demand a certain amount of ugliness for edifying contrast and delight. But exactly how much ugliness do we need? There's the question!”

Culturally, Bayley thinks that pro-ugliness will be the next thing—again (think Dada, punk, etc., then think kitsch). “Much as I admire [Apple head designer] Jony Ive,” he said, “his products have run beauty's course.  Once you make something so exquisitely refined as an iWhatsit, there is nowhere else to go. Look out for a new generation of ugly products. Same goes for cars. Ferrari has not made a beautiful car for years and years.”

Don’t look for an ugly cover or confusing interior layout to Ugly. Both are technically handsome yet conceptually bland. The desire with both, and with all that’s contained in the book, is to perplex. “Camus said, it's not ugliness that's perplexing, but beauty. In his view, beauty was unbearable because it hinted at the tragic vanity and fragility of existence,” Bayley said. “Meanwhile, in Serge Gainsbourg's nice expression, ugliness is superior to beauty because it last longer.”

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Steven Heller is a contributing writer for The Atlantic, the co-chair of the MFA Design program at the School of Visual Arts, and the co-founder of its MFA Design Criticism program.

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