What makes something ugly?

These 1940s “feature matches” are violent, racist, and decorated beyond function. (Photos by Frank Kelsey)

Ben Marks of Collectors Weekly says: "Lisa Hix has just finished an interview with London-based author and design critic Stephen Bayley, who spoke with her about Ugly: The Aesthetics of Everything. In our piece, the two discuss the intensely subjective nature of the things we perceive as being beautiful or ugly."

Ugliness is also surprisingly hard to design on purpose, as Bayley discovered both teaching and speaking with architecture students. “If you give a class of architecture students a project, saying ‘Please design an ugly building,’ they actually find that difficult. It’s very difficult to create ugliness, although you wouldn’t believe it by walking around in any big city. Ugliness often is just an accident, but it’s often utterly fascinating.”

Reading Ugly, it’s not too difficult to suss out Bayley’s personal preferences: He’s all about clean lines, right angles, and functionality; he finds neutral colors and the natural tones of wood more tasteful than bright hues or shiny things. He’s got no use for elaborate glass paperweights, loathes taxidermy and all Victorian hobbies that attempt to capture and catalog nature, finds tattoos tacky, and has no patience for mid-Century kitsch relating to Elvis, Vegas, or tiki bars—things like aloha T-shirts, souvenir mugs, or velvet paintings.

“I’m aesthete at heart,” confesses Bayley, who also published a book called Taste: The Secret Meaning of Things in 1992. “I’m one of those people, for good or for bad, who determine the value in anything by its appearance. People think appearance is superficial. I don’t. I think appearances matter, and actually the classical Greeks felt the same. They thought beauty had a moral character. That’s my fundamental view of the world. I can’t walk down the street and not be both exhilarated by beautiful cars and beautiful buildings and dismayed and depressed by ugly cars and ugly buildings. I am just one of those poor souls.”

Think You Know Ugly? Think Again

A reason to appreciate Thomas Kinkade

There's a theory that seeing something over and over and over will increase your acceptance of that thing. Applied to art, the idea suggests that what we think of as "good art" is actually just the stuff that we've seen a bunch of times. Which is sort of depressing. But here's some good news: There's evidence that this theory isn't true (at least, not always). A recent study found that people exposed to Thomas Kinkade paintings liked his work less and less the more often they saw it.