Herbert Bayer (1900–85) was an artist, architect, and designer best known in Colorado for his work in Aspen during the decades after World War II. Born in Austria and trained at the Bauhaus, Bayer brought to the United States a modernist belief in simple, stripped-down design, evident in everything from his sans serif typefaces to his geometric concrete buildings. In addition to his work in Aspen, Bayer also helped redefine American corporate design practices in his work for the Container Corporation and Atlantic Richfield.
Herbert Bayer was born on April 5, 1900, in Haag, Austria-Hungary. As a boy, he enjoyed exploring the nearby mountains. He also studied art and intended to enroll at the art academy in Vienna, but his father’s death in 1917 derailed those plans. Instead, he became an apprentice to an Austrian architect, followed by a second apprenticeship to a German architect.
Bayer’s life changed when he read the Russian painter Wassily Kandinsky’s book Concerning the Spiritual in Art. In 1921 he went to Weimar to enroll at the new Bauhaus art school, whose philosophy was similar to Kandinsky’s; Kandinsky would join the school’s faculty the following year. At the Bauhaus, Bayer learned to see the different arts (painting, sculpture, architecture, typography, and so on) as related elements under the umbrella of “total design.” He also cultivated a stripped-down simplicity in his work, following the modernist adage that follows function.
Bayer left the Bauhaus in 1923 for a year of travel in Italy, where he found work painting houses and stage sets. Back in Germany, he rejoined the Bauhaus when it moved to Dessau in 1925, now as director of the school’s typographic workshop. He believed in fonts and designs that had no extraneous features. He championed sans serif type with no capital letters, arranged in columns for easy reading and highlighted with color to draw attention to key words and phrases.
Bayer developed these design ideas further after leaving the Bauhaus in 1928 to start a career as a freelance designer in Berlin. Over the next decade, he became art director of German Vogue and worked for the Dorland Advertising Agency while also pursuing his own painting, photography, and exhibition design.
Coming to America
In 1937 Bayer came to the United States for the first time to attend a meeting in Providence, Rhode Island, to plan an upcoming Museum of Modern Art exhibition about the Bauhaus. By that time, Bayer was looking to leave Germany, where his work was included that year in the Nazis’ infamous Degenerate Art Exhibition. He returned to the United States a year later to work on the Bauhaus exhibition in New York City, and he never left. Bayer did much of the design for the Bauhaus exhibition, which helped introduce modernist design principles to the United States as it toured the country.
Bayer soon met Joella Haweis Levy, whom he married in 1944, and she aided his transition to the United States. Initially he continued to do the same kind of work in New York that he had been doing in Berlin. He designed several exhibitions for the Museum of Modern Art, including “Road to Victory” (1942) and “Airways to Peace” (1943). He also did advertising work for Wanamaker’s Department Store and the J. Walter Thompson advertising agency.
Bayer’s talents in advertising and exhibition design came together in 1945, when he designed an exhibition called “Modern Art in Advertising” for the Container Corporation of America. The company’s owner, Walter Paepcke, and his wife Elizabeth, appreciated Bayer’s work as well as his Bauhaus pedigree. Within a year, they convinced him to come to Aspen, the former mining town that they hoped to turn into a cultural hub. Visiting for Christmas in 1945, Bayer was struck by the resemblance between Aspen and the Austrian mountains where he grew up. He promptly bought an old Victorian once owned by Governor Davis Waite and moved permanently to the town in April 1946, becoming the Paepckes’ design consultant for all their Aspen projects.
For Bayer, Aspen was a chance to put his Bauhaus ideas into practice. The Bauhaus emphasized that all aspects of life, not just art and architecture, benefited from good design, and in Aspen, Bayer set out to plan the whole environment. He started by restoring old Victorians and providing a color scheme (pink or “Bayer blue”) for residents to use when fixing up their own houses. Soon he planned an octagonal Sundeck on top of Aspen Mountain, which opened in 1946, and fixed up the Wheeler Opera House and the Hotel Jerome, painting it white with Bayer blue “eyebrows” over the windows. Meanwhile, he also designed striking ads and posters promoting Aspen skiing. In 1950 he cofounded the Aspen Conference on Design, later known as the International Design Conference.
Bayer’s influence on Aspen waned over time as the town grew and the council ignored some of his zoning suggestions. But on the northwest side of town, around Aspen Meadows, Walter Paepcke gave him a free hand to design the campus of the Aspen Institute. Working with local architect Fritz Benedict, Bayer was able to design the full experience using architecture, sculpture, murals, and earthworks. His buildings, such as the Seminar Building (1953), Aspen Meadows Lodge (1954), and Health Center (1955), were small in scale, modest in materials (using lots of unadorned concrete), and simple in shape so as not to overwhelm the natural beauty of the landscape around them. In 1955 Bayer placed a “marble garden” made of fragments from Marble near the institute buildings, and over the next two decades he designed a series of earthworks to link the different campus buildings together. In 1962 he added the Walter Paepcke Memorial Building for the Aspen Institute and Stranahan Hall for the nearby Aspen Center for Physics. In 1965 he completed a 1,750-seat music tent for the Aspen Music Festival and School.
As Bayer planned Aspen and the Aspen Institute, he also was serving as a design consultant for the Container Corporation. During these years, he was responsible for two landmark pieces of advertising and design: Container’s “Great Ideas of Western Man” ad campaign, which started in 1950; and the company’s world geo-graphic atlas (1953), which gained renown for its clear visual presentation of information about the earth. In 1956 Bayer became chair of Container’s design department, a senior position that put him in charge of every aspect of the company’s look, from ads to corporate buildings.
In 1966 Bayer moved to a similar position at Atlantic Richfield, an oil company headed by Robert O. Anderson, who had taken over the Aspen Institute after Walter Paepcke stepped down. Bayer planned every element of Atlantic Richfield’s corporate image, including logos and color-based identities for subsidiary divisions. He also designed the company’s offices, and his art graced the walls.
Later Life and Legacy
In 1975 Bayer moved from Aspen to Montecito, California, because ill health prevented him from staying at a high altitude. He started painting in a new style, still geometric but with softer, handmade lines. He also continued to work for Atlantic Richfield and to do some sculpture and other art. His last completed sculpture, “articulated wall,” a twisted stack of yellow bars, was installed in Denver in 1985. Bayer died on September 30 of that year in Montecito. His papers were donated to the Denver Art Museum and are now available in the museum’s Herbert Bayer Collection and the Herbert Bayer Papers at the Denver Public Library. His design work for the Container Corporation, Atlantic Richfield, and the Aspen Institute (experienced by countless corporate leaders attending the Executive Seminar) helped usher in a new era of corporate design focused on unity and simplicity.
Some of Bayer’s architecture in Aspen suffered at the end of the twentieth century. His Sundeck was torn down in 1999, his music tent was replaced in 2000, and the house he designed for himself on Red Mountain was also destroyed. Today, however, the surging popularity of mid-century modern design as well as the centennial of the Bauhaus in 2019 have helped draw new attention to Bayer’s work in Colorado. Aspen celebrated with a “Bauhaus 100” program and has declared many buildings associated with Bayer local landmarks, including the 1888 Victorian where he first lived in town.
At the Aspen Institute, Lynda and Stewart Resnick gave $10 million to fund the Resnick Center for Herbert Bayer Studies, slated to open in 2022 with galleries and educational programs dedicated to Bayer’s work. In Denver the developer of Broadway Park near Bayer’s “articulated wall” took inspiration from Bayer’s work for its designs, including two new sculptures based on models and photographs in his archives; the first, Four Chromatic Gates, was completed in 2021.