Stephen Bayley is a very highly regarded author, critic, columnist, broadcaster, consultant, debater and curator. Perhaps his most influential achievement was the opening of the Boilerhouse Project with Terence Conran in the basement of the Victoria & Albert Museum in London. This gallery put to use an unused area of the building and would highlight artists, architects and designers to such success, that the suggestion of opening its own premises was quickly suggested. This new institution would be the Design Museum, which has hosted exhibitions for Porsche, Alpha Romeo and Eames to name but a few. We decided to catch up with Stephen over some coffee and watches.
Tell me about your first connection with watches and what that meant to you?
My first connection with watches came from what I now recognise as an astonishing gesture of generosity, from a student-era friend who brought me back a handsome stainless steel Seiko from a trip he took to Japan. I can quite honestly say, it made me feel like a thousand Yen.
And do you remember your first serious horological purchase?
Yes, the first month I was ever paid properly, I went straight to Harrods and spent £345.00 - roughly £145.00 more than I was paid on a Rolex Air King Date.
Does this piece remain with you today?
I recently gifted the piece to my son who wears it solely on feast days.
Being a known appreciator of well-designed and mass-produced products, I wondered what it is about this concept that you find so attractive?
Put simply, it’s the democratisation of luxury and the aestheticisation of the everyday.
This would be, I suppose, why you’re particularly a fan of Rolex watches, why do do you think consumers connect with Rolex in particular, so intensely?
I like the idea of timelessness in both art and design, examples which transcend the period of time in which they were made. Rolex does exactly that; a near perfect little machine which is almost un-improvable in design or technology. Besides, the thought of a watch being timeless is an amusing conceit.
Do you recall the much spoken of ‘Quartz Crisis’ of the 1980s, as I wondered what your opinion of Quartz vs. mechanical watches is?
Well it’s very similar to the argument had about wine cork’s vs. screw tops. Of course screw tops are more efficient, it’s just that corks are so much more pleasant.
Tell me a little about how the Boilerhouse Project at the V&A museum came to be?
When I met Terence Conran, we shared the opinion that ‘design’ should be thrust into the arena of culture, so people would take it seriously. He provided the money and influence; while I had the education and ideas.
Was it always intended to be with the V&A or did you assess other locations?
We were at one point planning on building a robotised high-tech shed in Milton Keynes - I mean, this was 1979. It then got diverted to the V&A, where we built a temporary exhibition space which we called The Boilerhouse. It was here that we sketched all the ideas that went into the original Design Museum which we opened with the matronising assistance of Mrs. Thatcher in 1989.
What do you make of the Museum today?
It’s a great vessel with poor cargo. Unfortunately the moment has passed.
I’m quite interested to hear about typical difficulties faced by brands during your consultations with them, if you can be so open with this? Particularly in connection with brands like BMW and Coca Cola?
There isn’t so much similarity in the difficulties as there is in their inspirations. Coke and BMW became successful by never deviating from a single proposition; delicious and refreshing or the ultimate driving machine. Such singularity gives helpful focus to designers and advertisers.
You’ve had quite a number of books published about design, cars, commerce and culture to reference a few topics and I wondered if you had ever planned or thought about producing one about watches?
No, it’s far too a specialist subject for me. I rather prefer grand generalisations to microscopic expertise.
You mention in the video we shot together that you’re a man of very particular routines and rituals, how do you think this came to be?
Well that’s easy. I prefer simplicity to complexity and I utterly detest clutter; be it organisational, emotional or domestic. Rituals avoid wasted effort.
That makes a great deal of sense. So what can we look out for in the coming months and years from you?
I’m currently producing a book about creativity. If only I could think of what to say.