Think You Know Ugly? Think Again

We know that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and ugly is, too. Trying to define beauty is difficult because opinions vary so much. And it’s even harder to define ugly. British design critic and cultural commentator Stephen Bayley wrote the book Ugly: The Aesthetics of Everything, in an attempt to describe the difficulty of such a subjective quality. Everyone knows what they consider ugly when they see it, but many find it hard to explain why something is 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.

There are many people who find those things delightful, and even beautiful. What one person considers ugly because it’s simple, gaudy, dirty, ornate, or primitive, another person finds appealing because it’s different, interesting, funny, or nostalgic. Who is to say whose taste is really "better?" And tastes change- what is fashionably beautiful today will seem ugly when it falls out of style; then when it is old enough to be vintage, it may be considered beautiful once again. Besides, if we didn't have ugliness, how could we appreciate beauty? Read a detailed look at the elusive concept of ugliness at Collectors Weekly.

(Image credit: Johannes Böckh & Thomas Mirtsch)

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