Designing Aspen: Bauhaus 100 Honors Legacy Of Artist Herbert Bayer

Dec 19, 2018

Herbert Bayer's "Anaconda" sculpture sits on the Aspen Institute campus
Credit Alycin Bektesh / Aspen Public Radio

Organizations in the Roaring Fork Valley will come together in 2019 for "bauhaus 100," a celebration of the centennial of the German design school. One of its students, Herbert Bayer, was instrumental in shaping the Aspen we know today. His architecture, images and design philosophy put Aspen on the map as a cultural destination. Bayer pushed boundaries while honoring Aspen’s natural beauty and history.

In a 1983 interview with author Ruth Bowman, Herbert Bayer explained that when he was growing up, his family, essentially peasants, couldn't understand his interest in art.

It makes you wonder what Aspen would be like today if Bayer hadn't followed his passion for design.

Lisa Hancock curated a new exhibit at the Aspen Historical Society that looks at Bayer’s work and his influence on Aspen.  

"Herbert Bayer through his modern and bauhaus outlook gave Aspen an image would be different than say, Steamboat, which went with a cowboy thing. Aspen went with this cultural and refined look," she said.

Bayer was born in Austria in 1900. He was drawn to art, but saw no opportunities to pursue this field in his home country.  He left when he was 21 to become one of the first students at the new bauhaus art school campus in Weimer, Germany.


Lissa Ballinger is the art curator at the Aspen Institute. She’s heading up the bauhaus 100 celebration and says the bauhaus school emphasized functional design.


"Lack of ornamentation, stripped down, very practical. You’d see that in architecture and all sorts of design work," she said.

The bauhaus was seen as a threat by the Nazi regime when it came to power. Bayer’s artwork was featured in a Nazi art show that was meant to shame what the regime considered to be degenerates.  And Bayer’s wife was Jewish. All of these things, Lisa Hancock says, meant Bayer had to make a decision.

"With the rise of Nazism and the Third Reich, he knew he had to get out of there," she said.

Bayer moved his family to New York, where his work caught the eye of a wealthy businessman named Walter Paepcke.  

In 1946, Paepcke convinced Bayer to move to a small town in Colorado, full of dilapidated buildings, with a population of less than 2,000.

Hancock says it wasn’t that tough a sell. Both he and Paepcke saw Aspen as a blank slate.  

"One of the reasons he moved here is because he was very excited about the prospect of being able to imprint on the entire town, everything from promotion to architecture to preservation," she said.

Hancock points out that they didn’t want to just recreate a European ski village.

"They didn’t want to see chalets and that kind of faux-Bavarian architecture brought over.  They didn’t think it was appropriate. They wanted Aspen to have its own style," she said.

For the next 40 years, Bayer’s projects in Aspen ranged from designing the first Sundeck on Aspen Mountain, to logos and ads for the Aspen Music Festival and School and for the ski club, to posters for the 1950 FIS ski championship that put Aspen on the ski world’s radar. All were done in his distinctive bold, graphic style. Curator Lissa Ballinger says, for him, it was all art.   

"He wouldn’t have seen any difference between a painting and, for instance, the soap he designed for the Hotel Jerome," she said.

Even though Bayer’s simple, functional bauhaus style was the exact opposite of Aspen’s existing Victorian architecture, with its ornate decoration, Hancock says that Bayer wanted to honor the town’s history. In fact, he started Aspen’s Historic Preservation Commission.

"He wanted the Victorian architecture preserved, and then he wanted -- if we were to build -- he wanted to build modern," she said.

Maybe the best example of “building modern” is the Aspen Institute campus.  Bayer designed the buildings, landscaping and sculptures.

Ballinger says Bayer meant for the functional, understated buildings to call attention to the natural beauty surrounding the campus.

"All the buildings on campus are gray and white. They are all these banal colors because he doesn’t want you to pay attention to the building. He wants you to look up and be humbled by your surroundings," she said.

Valley residents still feel like the landscape makes this place unique. But Herbert Bayer’s lasting influence sets us apart, too.  


The grand opening of the Aspen Historical Society’s exhibit “bayer & bauhaus: how design shaped aspen” starts Thursday at 4 p.m. at the Wheeler-Stallard Museum.