Ugly… the aesthetics of everything

“For as long as I can remember, I have been helplessly engrossed with the look of things, whether a ketchup bottle or a temple, a woman or a car…”

Stephen Bayley


What is ugly? We use the word commonly but do we truly understand its meaning? How do we know what is ugly and what is beautiful? How is that over time, something ugly can become beautiful? Is there actually such a thing as ugliness, how much does it have to do with personal taste, or does ugliness exist naturally?

“No object is so beautiful that, under certain conditions, it will not look ugly.”

Oscar Wilde

A greek word, circa 1250, uglike means “frightful or horrible in appearance” which was later softened to “very unpleasant to look at” around 1375. 502 years later and we’re introduced to the Ugly duckling by Hans Christian Andersen.

One of the leading cultural commentators of our time, Stephen Bayley, takes us on a journey of discovery by skilfully weaving centuries of art and design history into a discourse on the nature of beauty and its polar opposite, ugly.

Is ugliness only skin-deep, or can something that is beautifully engineered – a b52 bomber or a Colt .45 – also be ugly, if its function is to kill or to maim? What was “Degenerate Art” and why was it deemed such? Why are mountains seen as sublime expressions of nature, when only two hundred years ago they were regarded as loathsome things to be avoided at all costs? Just what is the relation between tattoos and crime, and why on earth is there a contest for “The Ugliest Dog in the World”? And lastly, if there was no ugly in the world, would there be any beauty?




Stephen Bayley is one of the world’s best-known commentators on design and popular culture, and is also a bestselling author. In the early 1980s he headed up the Boilerhouse Project at the Victoria and Albert Museum – Britain’s first permanent exhibition of design – and later became Chief Executive of the Design Museum in London. He has also worked as a design consultant for among others; Ford, Absolut Vodka, The Coca-Cola Company, Volkswagen, BMW and Harvey Nichols. As an out-spoken authority on art and design he frequently appears on television and regularly contributes to numerous newspapers and magazines.


Ugly: The Aesthetics Of Everything by Stephen Bayley is a new Goodman Fiell title, available from all good book stores, or online at and Amazon. RRP £25.


Having worked in design for the past decade, Daniel started as a discussion of timeless, modernist product design. Trained as a graphic designer, he also has an avid interest in typography. You can follow him on Twitter @ateliertally.