Art, Design and Architecture » Design

The best books on Pop Modern

recommended by Stephen Bayley

The British design guru on which book to buy if you want to know how to design a racing car in the 1960s style, American pop culture, modern architecture, and how "Liverpool in the 1960s was like Florence in the 1440s"

  • 1

    Pioneers of Modern Design
    by Nikolaus Pevsner

  • 2

    Seaport
    by Quentin Hughes

  • 3

    Theory and Design in the First Machine Age
    by Reyner Banham

  • 4

    The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby
    by Tom Wolfe

  • 5

    Racing and Sports Car Chassis Design
    by Michael Costin and David Phipps

The British design guru on which book to buy if you want to know how to design a racing car in the 1960s style, American pop culture, modern architecture, and how "Liverpool in the 1960s was like Florence in the 1440s"

Stephen Bayley

Stephen Bayley is one of the world’s best-known authorities on design, architecture and popular culture. Author, critic, columnist, curator, broadcaster and consultant, he was the founding director of London’s Design Museum.

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First, tell me about the Pevsner book.

Well, all these books are things I read at school in my teens 40 years ago and, like girls and beer and learning to drive, they’ve stuck with me. Nothing I’ve read since has made such a great impression on me. I grew up in Liverpool looking at the architecture. You can’t not notice the architecture in Liverpool, for good or for bad. Even Jung wrote about it without even going there. I picked this book up from the bookstore I used to haunt on a Saturday afternoon and I’d always loved Modern architecture but this book explained to me why. Nowadays people think his view is somewhat skewed; I think his view is somewhat skewed.

What is his view?

Well, it’s a very paternalistic interpretation of history as though the whole history of architecture was leading up to the creation of Modern architecture in 1926. We’re a bit more broad-minded nowadays, but his argument is very persuasive and the book is beautifully designed by Pelican when they were at their height. It’s a fabulously persuasive package. I used to carry it around like a Bible.

And Seaport, by Quentin Hughes?

Yes! This is the best book ever written about an individual city. Hughes was an architect, a conservationist and a soldier. There are these fabulous, grainy, evocative photographs in here. He shows the 1960s Liverpool slums in the most romantic possible way, and you have to remember that you had Allen Ginsberg hanging out there at the time. Hughes describes Liverpool as the centre of the universe. He was my tutor later at Liverpool University and I proposed to my wife in his house. This book is a history, a memoir, a critique. When he wrote it Liverpool was on the absolute cusp – in one way completely ruined, it hadn’t found its direction yet. Liverpool in the 1960s was like Florence in the 1440s.

The Reyner Banham book?

Banham is one of the people who taught me how to write, to the extent that I have learnt, of course. He was a professor at the Bartlett School of Architecture in London but he also did this kind of funky journalism in New Society and The Listener, when they did funky journalism. He was very involved in the Pop movement – he was one of the organisers of the 1956 exhibition This Is Tomorrow. He was in love with America and Americana and he showed me that you can be an academic and have an intellect but you can still write about cars. He legitimised the study of pop culture. He undermined the assumptions of the Modernist Movement, the assumption being that there is only one true direction of history. Pevsner was an art historian but he gives a wilful interpretation of his own, while Banham gets down to the documents and finds out about the Russians and the fact that the leading lights, people like Malevich, were actually from the backwaters of Eastern Europe, far from the modern world but yearning for the symbolism of machinery. This book is a perfect history of architecture and design in the first 40 years of the 20th century.

And your next choice?

Tom Wolfe is the living writer I most admire. I used to read this book on my knee in maths at school. He does things with words that make me think: ‘How did he do that?’ He made me realise that writing for newspapers and magazines was a great calling. I never tire of reading Tom Wolfe. He is also a man of supreme personal style and irreverence; he never cares who he offends.

What is this book about?

About? Well, it’s about 1960s Americ cars, kids, pop culture. He was one of the inventors of the New Journalism. We don’t need to write fiction! We can write journalism in the first person with incredible observation! This is not a novel but to call it journalism makes it sound slight. It isn’t. This is a masterpiece of the New Journalism.

OK, your last book’s about chassis design?

Ah ha! Yes, well, I put this one in to show what a wacky, fascinating and fun individual I am. I read this at school too. I loved art and poetry but I also loved racing cars. I thought I was going to be an architect so I did maths and physics and was absolutely hopeless at them both. Truly hopeless. With what little talent I did have I used to design engines.
If you want to know how to design a racing car in the 1960s style then this is the book you need. It shows you how to bend metal, design suspension, tune engines. And it’s a beautiful book with wonderful illustrations. It describes the conceptual principles of mechanical engineering that have been with me ever since. Not that I have designed a racing car since then. There is a picture of the polar moment of inertia. Once you have a concept like that, these principles of technology and their vocabulary can easily be applied to people, don’t you think?

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Stephen Bayley

Stephen Bayley is one of the world’s best-known authorities on design, architecture and popular culture. Author, critic, columnist, curator, broadcaster and consultant, he was the founding director of London’s Design Museum.