The two faces of Bayley

High-profile figures often provoke strong reactions. Hugh Pearman analyses the possible reasons for our antipathy towards design guru Stephen Bayley

Why do we all hate Stephen Bayley so much? Because we do, don’t we? Be honest: when did you ever hear anyone even peripherally connected with the design world say something like – “That Bayley – what a nice guy! An accomplished academic, a brilliant curator, a noted lateral thinker – and modest to a fault?” Ever since the Boilerhouse days of the early Eighties, Bayley has been sneered at. But now he has one of the highest-profile part-time jobs going: “creative director” of the Millennium Exhibition. Can he once more don the mask of design guru?

I find the Bayley phenomenon fascinating. I know serious cultural historians who have apoplexy when his name is mentioned. I know editors with tales of his allegedly rampant egotism. Yet since he quit the Design Museum, he has been a character in search of a role. Bayley landed none of the key museum jobs. Bayley touched only the fringes of television. Bayley had an unhappy few months in charge of Peter Palumbo’s Arts Foundation. Bayley became a motoring journalist. Bayley was spoken of as a “consultant” – that catch-all term. And the little chap virtually disappeared from view during the recession.

Then recently, now grizzled but still as irritatingly twinkly as ever, he began to pop up again. As consumer confidence increased, so did Bayley’s public appearances. He seems to be a kind of economic indicator. But the first public comeback for Bayley was anything but promising: the Coca-Cola show at the Design Museum. A damp squib of a display, tired and unoriginal. It is still just about possible to come up with original angles on the famous bottle – how about its clear line of descent from medieval reliquaries, for instance, a characteristic it shares with most perfume bottles? But one looks in vain even for such minor aperçus.

However, one duff exhibition – with a few big pictures of famous people drinking coke, and fatuous gimmicks like getting Conran to decant claret into his coke bottle – does not fully explain why Bayley gets our goat. This is a “paid for” show, I was told, which means it is effectively a sales promotion for the drinks giant – but Bayley is by no means a solo operator in that particular grey area and besides, such promos will surely form a huge part of the Millennium Exhibition.

No, it is of course Bayley’s apparently relentless self-promotion that upsets us. The feeling that the serious matter of design is reduced to being a vehicle for one man’s ambition. You cannot help noticing that he employs two separate PR companies – one to promote his “events” and one to promote just, well, himself. Always a cause for suspicion in the British mind, he is just a bit too well turned-out, and just a bit too glib – happy to analyse the Prime Minister’s character on the basis of his crockery. All these things make us hate Bayley: probably because, in the darkest recesses of our psyches, we really want to BE him.

So is Bayley incredibly superficial, or is he – as they say of Matthew Kelly on the telly – a really deep guy who’s just acting? I subscribe to the latter theory. There is, I submit, a real Stephen Bayley who has Alan Turing-like intelligence, sometimes slobs around a bit, is assailed by the usual worries about money and health and children, has devoted friends who forgive him his foibles, is capable of weeping. Then there is the character (in quotation marks, denoting irony) “Stephen Bayley” – the role he assumes when he leaves the house every morning. This character is the egomaniac control freak that the world occasionally glimpses and wonders at. Like Barry Humphries’ Edna Everage, or Caroline Aherne’s Mrs. Merton, he is therefore a delicious, masterly and wholly self-conscious creation.

Given which, I can now answer the question at the head of this article. Why do we all hate Stephen Bayley so much? We do not. We do not know Stephen Bayley. If we did, we might love him tenderly. Instead, we are responding to an invented persona that is so good, so convincing, that surely it is the mark of underlying genius. Following this logic, the wretched Coca-Cola show is a send-up. What does this portend for the Millennium Exhibition? How much irony can the nation take?

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