From 1919 to 1933, artists ran a revolutionary modernist school in Germany called the Bauhaus. But when pressure from the Nazis forced the Bauhaus to shut its doors in the lead up to World War II, its many talented students and teachers fled, taking the school’s radical ideas about art, architecture, design and craftsmanship with them to locations around 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 is on the grounds of the Aspen Institute campus, which Bayer designed after moving to Colorado in the 1940s. The center’s first exhibition, “Herbert Bayer: An Introduction,” explores the polymath’s often-underappreciated body of work as a painter.
Bayer left an indelible mark on the small mountain town in Colorado’s Roaring Fork Valley—and on art, architecture, advertising and design more broadly. In addition to preserving Bayer’s legacy in Aspen, the facility is meant to be a living, breathing hub for new ideas in art and design, just as the Bauhaus was 100 years ago.
“We want to be more than a museum,” James Merle Thomas, the center’s executive director, tells the Aspen Times’ Andrew Travers, adding that the center will be a “laboratory for thinking about how we define community.”
Born in 1900 in Austria, Bayer began drawing at a young age. After serving in World War I, he apprenticed with architect-designers before enrolling in the Bauhaus in 1921. Established two years earlier by architect Walter Gropius, the Bauhaus amounted to a total rethinking of art and design under Germany’s provisional government, the Weimar Republic, which formed in the wake of World War I.
“What Gropius decided to do was so radical: He merged the school of craft and the school of fine arts into one,” Lissa Ballinger, the Aspen Institute’s art curator, tells Smithsonian magazine. “He said there should be no hierarchy in the arts anymore; art should just be considered art.”
The Bauhaus philosophy was “a return to simplicity,” emphasizing practicality, efficiency and accessibility over ornamentation and frivolity, adds Ballinger. Primary colors, simple shapes, industrial materials and functional forms were all hallmarks of Bauhaus style.
When Bayer arrived at the school, he initially studied mural painting under Russian artist Wassily Kandinsky. But he quickly expanded his repertoire to include typography, design and other art forms, becoming one of the Bauhaus’ teachers in 1925.
While at the school, Bayer produced many innovative works, including the Bauhaus’ official typeface: the simple, mostly lowercase font with letters derived from complete circles.
Bayer’s influence also extended to advertising; advertisements at the time were typically “wordy,” written with “very decorative, ornate letters,” says Ballinger. “But Bayer said, ‘I want to be able to communicate a message to someone, and I want to be able to communicate clearly. Why would I have ornamentation on the letters?’”
In 1928, Bayer moved to Berlin, where he spent the next ten years working in design. But as political tensions grew around him, he became progressively unhappier. In 1938, he moved to New York, where he had a fateful encounter with Chicago industrialist Walter Paepcke, who had been investing heavily in a certain sleepy town in Colorado.
“Paepcke knew he had to bring someone here to help direct and promote and decide the future of Aspen,” says Ballinger. “And it’s really interesting that who he decided to have move here wasn’t a city planner, an engineer or an architect. It was Herbert Bayer, an artist.”
Bayer moved to Aspen in 1946, where he spent the next 30 years working alongside Paepcke to make the town a world-class destination for skiing, arts and culture. He created clever ad campaigns and designed the ski resort’s iconic aspen leaf logo, a version of which is still in use today. He renovated the city’s historic Wheeler Opera House and the Hotel Jerome, a prominent local landmark, and he built the original Sundeck warming hut atop Aspen Mountain.
But Bayer’s biggest project was designing the grounds of the newly formed Aspen Institute for Humanistic Studies, established 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 labored meticulously on the 40-acre campus. In keeping with Bauhaus style, the buildings are simple, with windows laid out to emphasize the surrounding natural environment. Inside, many of the rooms are hexagonal or octagonal, which Bayer designed to encourage roundtable discussions, says Ballinger.
“He planned out every single aspect of the campus,” she adds. “This is what is considered his gesamtkunstwerk, his total work of art.”
All the while, Bayer stayed busy with hundreds of other projects: painting, drawing, sculpting, graphic design, producing 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.
Though 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: Living in Aspen, Bayer was quite far from the art scene in New York. He also had no financial incentive to pursue gallery exhibitions, as he was always supported by patrons.
But above all, Bayer dabbled in nearly every art form imaginable—which has made him hard for historians and critics to categorize, says Ballinger. In Aspen, however, where travelers and locals alike can still find traces of Bayer’s influence all over town, his work fits right in.
“Herbert Bayer: An Introduction” is on view at the Resnick Center for Herbert Bayer Studies through December 3.