Stephen Bayley, design critic for The Observer, the world's oldest Sunday newspaper, refers to his home's garden as "a space where we can sit with a book and a glass of wine," an attitude that I appreciate but might interfere with the clarity of any future book reviews. Fortunately, lacking a garden, the pairing most likely won't be occurring any time soon. Perhaps in the relaxed frame of mind owing to a tipple or two in his garden, he recently released two books about subjects near and dear to his heart: women and cars. With a brief note of full disclosure that I too love both Women and Cars , let's commence with an actual discussion of both books, but first to telegraph my conclusion: Each book would have been far more interesting if its subject matter had been tackled with the other book's thesis.
In the introduction of his first book, Women as Design he frames his thesis as "If a woman were designed, what would be the design brief." While such an intro would have made for an interesting Phillip K. Dick book, it does suffer from an odd sort of cart/horse logic. Bayley begins with smatterings of science: waist to hip ratios, youth, health, Darwin, fertility, but all of the science is covered far more clearly in books like Survival of the Prettiest. Crammed in with this science is a far larger volume of wide-ranging and well-informed history of the male need to categorize, obsess over and artistically honor or replicate the female form. Unfortunately, after touching briefly on the science the book turns in to a paean upon the wonders of female beauty without ever getting into the details of what sexual beauty is. Even more alarming is the glaring lack of any insight into the male brain, which is where the real magic happens. There's nothing more fundamentally beautiful than about the form of a human woman than of a canine bitch in heat or a cannibalistic preying mantis. It's the male brain that's evolved to discern female beauty as much as it is the female body evolved to "be beautiful," whatever that means.
Instead, the sort of design brief that would have been required to create woman would have been riddled with constraints to produce what we could regard as errors. Having recently read Richard Dawkins' book Greatest Show on Earth, I learned that my testicle happens to find its vas deferens routed on a convoluted detour up and around the urinary tract through an accident of evolution. Likewise, the extreme distress that our large brains and giant heads cause on the female birth canal are certainly not things that any benevolent designer would put in their brief. Further, any observer deriding the Hollywood tendency to cast nubile women opposite leading men approaching their twilight years is on to something. Society would appear much more egalitarian if, like gorillas, human fertility (and consequently physical attractiveness) persisted later in life in males and females. Sadly, it does not, and that fleeting moment of peak fertility drives everything from fashion to pornography to war. Unfortunately, the alternatives, such as the merry social copulation of the bonobos, were not in our design brief (indeed, there was no brief).
In his analysis Bayley behaves much like a man gazing into a stereoscope in wonder at the 3D image revealed, extolling the depth of the New York skyline (for example) without ever bothering to marvel at the contraption that makes him perceive that marvel. Indeed, the regress can be taken one step further, not only failing to examining the stereoscope, but also the human eye, the inversion of the image across the retina, the optic chiasma, the left/right mapping and all of the neural real-estate devoted to turning two inverted sight pictures with holes in the middle into a coherent image. What Bayley misses is that the male brain is already the most precise lens through which to assess female beauty. The rest is, well, masturbation. While science can do a decent job of explaining why we find what we find beautiful, the female mind can rank female beauty in an ordinal manner, and scientists have even made a computer that accurately assesses female facial beauty (but not yet male!), the clearest distillation of female beauty happens through male neurotransmitters, synapses and hormones. For that, we don't need Stephen Bayley's historical commentary, Anna Wintour's fashion sense or Germaine Greer's empowered feminism to tell us what's beautiful. It's not a coincidence that Vogue, Playboy and Botticelli all choose models from the moments following closely after puberty. The male mind gets it right the first time, and in a way that completely confounds analysis of the form factors of the female body.
Women as Design seems fixated on analysis of the female form that it seems to miss the rather obvious conclusion that, yes, Bayley has indeed followed a long tradition of men stemming back beyond ancient Greece who spend outrageous amounts of time attempting to understand the female form in every way but the one which nature intended. Not until the penultimate chapter, entitled The Callipygian Curve, does he begin to attack causality in a sensible way. Subtitled "How Design Appropriated the Female Form," it includes a curvaceous automobile by Carlo Mollino halfway through, and that's where an interesting book could have begun.
Although not published as a companion piece Cars: Freedom, Style, Sex, Power, Motion, Colour, Everything is described by press copy as "a different aspect of the same subject." Of the two, Cars is far less inflammatory: 200+ pages of gorgeous automobiles shot in black and white and coupled with no-nonsense sans-serif copy. While I might have a more than modest preference for the naked women in the first book over the pressed steel of the second, the question of why we perceive the beaten metal sideboard of a Talbot-Lago T150SS as "beautiful," that presents a real humdinger of a scientific question (and indeed, a century's worth of real design briefs).
The title itself is borrowed from Tom Wolfe, with only the added "u" in "Colour" to obscure its origins in a British author's book, but the cars themselves originate evenly from the US and Europe, with a smattering of Asian cars toward the end. In this book, however, pinned down to one very precise man-made topic, Bayley's slightly subdued copy shines. The introduction artfully weaves culture and history together to present a meaningful context for autophilia without resorting to wild extrapolation or free association. When he speaks of his formative years and alludes to Wolfe's quote that "Cars mean more to these kids than architecture did in Europes' great formal century, say 1750 to 1850," you can be pretty sure that both he and Wolfe are right. The reason, once again, is sex, where the car, as a symbol of status and of freedom was explicitly referenced in advertising and in culture. GM's head stylist Harley Earl was alluded to as a woman "pincher" in a popular fifties song, but it was no leap of deduction to follow that it was as much the car as the man who had stolen the girl, and the Beach Boys sang harmonies about cars and women that were aurally indistinguishable.
Once we get into the 80 or so cars that are illustrated, the accompanying text turns serious. For each car, whether the '35 Lincoln Zephyr or the (ick!) 2002 Nissan Cube, the reader is informed of members of the design staff, historical context and precedents or antecedents depending upon the age of the automobile. The photography is black and white, high-contrast, and of uniformly high quality. Each car is shot from the side on a two page spread and is followed by five detail shots, one large, four small. This pattern is repeated on each car such that the cars speak for themselves. Precisely because color is not involved every highlight seems white and every shadow black. While the actual automobile being photographed may be white, or silver, black or red, all that comes through in the photos are curves, angles and surface.
Stephen Bayley may love cars even more than women and the details and choices are clearly well-researched. Choosing 80 cars out of the history of automobile production is quite an editorial oversight and I can take no issue with any of his choices. Beyond the inclusion of some absolute stunners, even the ugly ones were paradigm changing. Oddly, however, his love of vivid sexually-charged descriptions wanes when the specific cars arrive. The '53 Corvette is described as "a shameless display of sexual suggestiveness," but no rationale is provided as to exactly which fender or bumper curve provides that connotation. Clearly, if sex sells, a taxonomy of sexual design would be a gold mine, but the very real question of why one car (e.g. a '55 Lancia Aurelia B24) is "lascivious" while another (the very same year's Citroen DS) is described in functional terms is not addressed. Perhaps, we're simply expected to know. It's supposed to be obvious, and it is ... but we don't get to see that brief.
My favorite car in the bunch is the '55 BMW 507, with a large wheeled muscularity and a low slung body. Bayley notes that it appropriates American details through a European lens. He says it represents a European designer's projection of American fantasies. Possibly true, but then why does the '57 Bel Air, which is an American car with European details do nothing for me? Something deeper is going on dear product designer, and I would hope that you would agree with me that there is no comparison between the two, despite similar inspiration. Contrast this with another car made in 1957, the Lotus Elite, which actually used wind tunnels to determine its drag rather than attaching fins and ornaments and is almost painfully beautiful to look at. After that, reading that the '59 Corvair described as "a revolutionary design in every sense," feels almost like a betrayal.
Unfortunately, then what comes out of Bayley's descriptions of individual cars bears little rhyme or reason. After lengthy discussions of "callipygian" curves, the accompanying text alludes to phalluses as often as anything else, with the classic Jaguar E-Type lauded for it's "phallic proportions," and the surprisingly beautiful Toyota 2000GT is likewise called phallic, while the nearly identically proportioned Ferrari 250 GTO, is not.
After paging through an entire book of automobiles and trying to project a masculine or feminine character into them (especially after seeing the Lamborghini Countach), it is this reader's opinion that beauty in cars is as diverse as in the animal kingdom. Projecting the sexual dimorphism of human beings into automobiles invariably says more about the viewer than the automobile, and the differences between a Lamborghini named after a bull and a Ford named after a bird vary more along animal morphology than those of gender. Health in animals and health in human beings is signaled physically through clear differences in form. Whether one runs after prey or is chased by a predator, a knowledge of the stamina and well being of that animal is either ingrained or rapidly learned by the human mind after millennia of evolution. That same design language of the healthy interplay of hard muscle against yielding skin seems to this reader as the only universal in the formally constructed beauty of pressed sheet metal. I remain curious, however, whether Stephen Bayley could have turned the same vigor he applied to categorizing female beauty to the product design of his other love, cars.