A British design critic (Harley Earl and the Dream Machine, 1983) offers an opinionated tour of the modern and mercurial concept of taste, that ``merciless betrayer of social and cultural attitudes.'' ``Good'' and ``bad'' taste, Bayley argues, are not absolutes, and no longer the simple matter of rules they were in Joshua Reynolds's England. Indeed, taste changes: El Greco was neglected until Picasso became his champion, and even Shakespeare was sometimes scorned. Thanks to Mme. de Pompadour (the ``ancien rÇgime version of `born to shop' ''), ``taste ceased to be metaphorical and became instead a particular vision of the haute-bourgeoisie.'' Much fun is to be had here contemplating the vulgarity of the leopard-skin upholstery in billionaire Alan Bond's Mercedes, or the way the nouveaux riches acquire ``an image of self'' by having Elsie de Wolfe buy them chandeliers or, today, Ralph Lauren dress them in the ``romanticized'' trappings of WASP society. The definitions here are neither simple nor pristine, and beg questions repeatedly asked. Taste, Bayley claims, has mostly to do with intentions (such as to impress). Yet good design is measurable- -``durable, affordable, useful, efficient.'' Unfortunately, good design has been confused with good taste--the meaning of ``good'' being debased by a specious sense of superiority. And ``designer'' became a ``dead'' label when it was attached to jeans. Clearly allied with the modernists for whom Walter Gropius's office is a shrine, Bayley sees their passion for simplicity and functionalism as born of a certain time and place. He has much to say about architecture (today mostly ``pure kitsch'') interior design (``the red light district of culture''), as well as fashion and food. Much of the impact of this smart, sweeping, intermittently clarifying commentary comes from well-captioned b&w photographs of influential landmarks of taste--from a Paris restaurant of 1900 to Converse sneakers, Coco Chanel, a William Morris print, and the Rothschilds' chateau.