As Germany celebrates the centennial of the Bauhaus in Weimar, Dessau and Berlin, the short-lived revolutionary art school is also being honored in a surprising location: Aspen, Colo.
The prolific Bauhaus artist and designer Herbert Bayer lived in Aspen from 1946 until 1975, and left a rich, lasting mark on the mountain resort town. A yearlong slate of events includes walking tours, exhibitions, gallery shows, talks, art workshops, musical performances and more. You can even order a Bauhaus-style pastry made of squares and rectangles of cake in primary colors at Plato’s restaurant at the Aspen Meadows Resort.
A good place to begin: the exhibition “bayer & bauhaus: how design shaped aspen” (through April 2020) at the Aspen Historical Society’s Wheeler/Stallard Museum. The overview features sketches, posters, photographs and other items related to Bayer’s commercial design work, his local architecture projects and the impact he had on the community. It also answers the question of how the Austrian-born Bayer, who left the Bauhaus in 1928 for an advertising career in Berlin, wound up in a remote mountain outpost, which, at the time, verged on a ghost town.
Designing a town’s rebirth
The short version: The Chicago industrialist Walter Paepcke and his wife, Elizabeth, jump-started Aspen’s renewal several decades after the town’s silver-mining economy went bust in 1893 and the population dwindled to 700. In 1946 Paepcke invited Bayer — then living in New York City after having left Nazi Germany — to Aspen to help design and market the town’s rebirth.
In addition to buying up many of the town’s defunct buildings and getting the fledgling ski area off the ground, Paepcke envisioned Aspen as “a cultural utopia, a place to discuss the issues of the day in a neutral spot,” said Lissa Ballinger, the art curator at the Aspen Institute. The area’s incredible natural beauty also played into the idea of feeding one’s body, mind and spirit, as the Paepckes’ high-minded concept for Aspen is now characterized.
To this end, in 1949 the couple organized a 20-day bicentennial celebration to honor Goethe, the German writer; the event introduced the town to hundreds of visitors, including Thornton Wilder and Albert Schweitzer, and led to the establishment of the Aspen Music Festival and School, the Aspen Institute for Humanistic Studies (the latter part of the name has since been dropped) and a long-running international design conference.
With Aspen back on the map, Bayer, the quintessential influencer of his time, dove into the task of spiffing up and advertising the town and its amenities. From the mid-1940s to the early ’70s, Bayer worked on a wide range of projects: designing buildings, helping set local policies, and creating ski posters that promoted Aspen’s cachet as a ski destination. He designed the annual programs for the Music Festival, and even created custom stationery for the Hotel Jerome, which he restored. (Much of this graphic work is now on show at Wheeler/Stallard.) He renovated the Wheeler Opera House, closed since a fire damaged it in 1912, and designed the summit lodge atop Aspen Mountain — his first architecture commission — with an innovative component: a concave roof over the fireplace that caught snow, which then melted into a water source.
Bayer also became a hyper-engaged citizen. “An artist or designer functions in society, not as a decorator, but as a vital participant,” he wrote in “Herbert Bayer Visual Communication, Architecture, Painting.” He helped found the local historical society, advised town government on historic preservation, and chaired the planning and zoning commission for five years.
Not all of Bayer’s attempts succeeded. Hoping to brighten up the town’s aging buildings, he encouraged locals to paint their houses in unconventional colors like Pepto-Bismol pink and a shade now known as Bayer blue. “It was kind of a flop,” said Lisa Hancock, vice-president and curator of collections at the Aspen Historical Society. And it took time to introduce Bauhaus-style architecture to a community of potato farmers and ranchers. “It was culture shock to Aspen residents at the time,” Ms. Hancock said.