The Art of Living

Written by Stephen Bayley
Review by Douglas Kemp

Any novel, historical or otherwise, that begins with a photograph of the fictional first-person narrator and the caption laconically stating that the subject, Eustace Dunne is a c***, intrigues the sometimes-jaded reader. Stephen Bayley is a design guru and historian and has written an intriguing novel about an enfant terrible English designer. The story comprises a mixture of fictional and real-life characters. The reader sees a hint of Terence Conran in Dunne’s search to identify beauty in the design of furniture and bringing magnificence to the mundane and quotidian, which was not exactly an easy task in dull, grey austerity Britain in the 1950s. Dunne is a plagiarist, a thief, an opportunist—while his life is dedicated to the creation of beauty in design, he achieves this essence of aestheticism by some rather unpleasant and decidedly unattractive behaviour.

Written by a designer and artist, the novel vibrates with the culture and milieu of postwar Britain and the Western world, filled with the artifacts and objects of the 1950s, the overweening ethic of design and good taste dominating the story, so at times the reader occasionally forgets this is a fictional tale and sees it as a sort of socio-cultural biography of exquisite perception and decorum. In his afterword Bayley cheerfully admits that the story is a sort of pastiche of all the excesses of the design world, made up of his magpie-like habit of collecting a lifetime of experiences, sayings, and characters. Indeed, the content occasionally seems to be just a catalogue of 1950s and 60s design ethics as Dunne makes his belligerent way through the design and taste world of West Europe and North America, stealing, adapting, and making his reputation as Britain’s leading design guru. It is readable, enjoyable, but not exactly great fiction.