From 1919 to 1933, artists in Germany led a revolutionary modernist school called the Bauhaus. But when Nazi pressure forced the Bauhaus to close its doors in the run-up to World War II, its many talented students and teachers fled, taking the school’s radical ideas about art, architecture, design and crafts with them across the world.
Now, Aspen, Colorado is home to a new center that explores the Bauhaus legacy through the lens of one of its most prolific artists, Herbert Bayer.
The new Resnick Center for Herbert Bayer Studies occupies the site of the Aspen Institute campus, which Bayer designed after moving to Colorado in the 1940s. The centre’s first exhibition, Herbert Bayer: An Introduction, examines the polymath’s often underestimated work as a painter.
Bayer left an indelible mark on the small mountain town in Colorado’s Roaring Fork Valley — and more broadly in art, architecture, advertising, and design. In addition to preserving Bayer’s legacy in Aspen, the facility aims to be a living, breathing center for new ideas in art and design, just as the Bauhaus was 100 years ago.
“We want to be more than just a museum,” says James Merle Thomas, the center’s executive director Aspen timesAndrew Travers, adding that the center will be a “laboratory for thinking about how we define community”.
Born in Austria in 1900, Bayer began drawing at a young age. After serving in World War I, he apprenticed to architects and designers before enrolling at the Bauhaus in 1921. Founded two years earlier by the architect Walter Gropius, the Bauhaus represented a complete rethinking of art and design under Germany’s provisional government, the Weimar Republic. created after the First World War.
“What Gropius decided was so radical: he merged the School of Craft and the School of Fine Arts into one,” says Lissa Ballinger, curator of art at the Aspen Institute Smithsonian Magazine. “He said there should be no more hierarchy in art; Art should just be seen as art.”
The Bauhaus philosophy is “a return to simplicity,” which emphasizes practicality, efficiency, and accessibility over ornamentation and frivolity, adds Ballinger. Primary colors, simple shapes, industrial materials, and functional shapes were all hallmarks of the Bauhaus style.
When Bayer came to the school, he first studied mural painting with the Russian artist Wassily Kandinsky. But he soon expanded his repertoire to include typography, design and other art forms and in 1925 became one of the teachers at the Bauhaus.
Bayer produced many innovative works during his school days, including the official typeface of the Bauhaus: the simple, mostly lowercase typeface with letters derived from complete circles.
Bayer’s influence also extended to advertising; Ads back then were typically “wordy” and written with “very decorative, squiggly letters,” says Ballinger. “But Bayer said, ‘I want to be able to get a message across to someone and I want to be able to communicate clearly. Why should I have embellishments on the letters?’”
In 1928 Bayer moved to Berlin, where he worked in design for the next ten years. But as political tensions grew around him, he became increasingly unhappy. In 1938 he moved to New York, where he had a fateful encounter with Chicago industrialist Walter Paepcke, who had invested heavily in a certain sleepy Colorado town.
“Paepcke knew he had to bring someone here to guide, nurture and decide Aspen’s future,” says Ballinger. “And it’s really interesting that he decided not to bring a town planner, engineer or architect here. It was Herbert Bayer, an artist.”
Bayer moved to Aspen in 1946, where he spent the next 30 years working alongside Paepcke in developing the town into a premier destination for skiing, arts and culture. He created clever advertising campaigns and designed the ski resort’s iconic aspen leaf logo, a version of which is still used today. He renovated the city’s historic Wheeler Opera House and Hotel Jerome, a well-known local landmark, and he built the original Sundeck Warming Lodge atop Aspen Mountain.
But Bayer’s biggest project was to design the grounds of the newly formed Aspen Institute for Humanistic Studies, founded by Paepcke in 1950 to bring together leaders, scholars, philosophers, writers and artists to solve the world’s most pressing problems.
For 20 years, from 1953 to 1973, Bayer worked meticulously on the 40-hectare campus. In keeping with the Bauhaus style, the buildings are simple, with windows arranged to emphasize the surrounding natural environment. Inside, many of the rooms are hexagonal or octagonal, which Bayer designed to encourage roundtable discussions, Ballinger says.
“He planned every single aspect of the campus,” she adds. “That’s what counts as his Total work of art, his total work of art.”
Meanwhile, Bayer was busy with hundreds of other projects: painting, drawing, sculpting, graphic design, making world atlases, and weaving tapestries, among other pursuits. After suffering a series of heart attacks in 1974, he moved to Montecito, California, where he lived until his death in 1985.
Although he was a prolific creator – the Denver Art Museum alone has more than 8,000 of his works in its permanent collection – Bayer is not as well known as some of his Bauhaus peers. Ballinger attributes this to several factors: Bayer lived in Aspen and was quite distant from the New York art scene. He also had no financial incentive to pursue gallery exhibitions, as he was always supported by patrons.
Above all, however, Bayer tried his hand at almost every conceivable art form – which makes it difficult for historians and critics to classify him, says Ballinger. In Aspen, however, where travelers and locals can still find traces of Bayer’s influence throughout the city, his work fits right in.
“Herbert Bayer: An introduction‘ is on view at the Resnick Center for Herbert Bayer Studies until December 3rd.