Good Gesamtkunstwerk!

Meet Herbert Bayer, the artist who helped put Aspen on the map.

THOUGH TODAY ASPEN IS a well-known four-season playground attracting high-profile visitors from around the world, it wasn’t always this way. In the first few decades of the 1900s, by contrast, the Roaring Fork Valley town was a sleepy ranching community full of run-down buildings and abandoned silver mines. 

After World War II, a wealthy Chicago businessman named Walter Paepcke visited Aspen at his wife’s urging and set out to change Aspen’s ragtag persona. Understanding the region’s unparalleled natural beauty, he began to invest heavily in the quiet town with an overarching goal of making it a world-class destination for skiing and other outdoor pursuits, arts and culture, and more.

For help, he turned to a gifted artist named Herbert Bayer. In the nearly 30 years Bayer spent in Aspen, from 1946 to 1974, he left an indelible mark on the community—and ultimately helped make it the popular destination it is today. The late artist’s legacy takes center stage at the new Resnick Center for Herbert Bayer Studies, a free museum and community gathering space that opened over the summer on the grounds of the Aspen Institute (which Bayer himself designed). 

Photo courtesy of Resnick Center for Herbert Bayer Studies

“Bayer was instrumental in Aspen’s postwar revitalization,” says Lissa Ballinger, the center’s acting director. “He had a profound influence on the making of modern Aspen, on the development of Aspen as a cultural and recreational destination.”

Born in Austria in 1900, Bayer studied and taught at the famed Bauhaus school that operated in Germany from 1919 to 1933, which prioritized simplicity, efficiency, and practicality—such as primary colors and basic shapes—in art and design. Training and natural talent combined to make Bayer a prolific polymath, skilled in everything from painting to architecture to sculpture to advertising and graphic design. 

It took a little convincing to get Bayer to move to Aspen—at the time, the town was remote, unknown, and had just 800 residents, after all—but, eventually, he agreed. When he arrived, Bayer quickly got to work breathing new life into the neglected town. He restored the longstanding Hotel Jerome to its former glory, renovated the historic Wheeler Opera House twice, and developed the Aspen Skiing Company’s instantly recognizable logo. He created clever advertising campaigns to entice tourists to visit Aspen and designed the first Sundeck atop Aspen Mountain.

But his gesamtkunstwerk, or total work of art, was the Aspen Institute campus. Bayer spent 20 years carefully designing every aspect of the 40-acre site, which today continues to host important cultural events like the Aspen Ideas Festival and the Aspen Music Festival.

See for yourself on a trip to Aspen this winter: Wander through the new center’s inaugural exhibition, Herbert Bayer: An Introduction or take a guided tour of its galleries. Book a room at Aspen Meadows Resort, also on the grounds of the Aspen Institute, and marvel at Bayer’s art installations and the rolling hills, called “earthworks,” he integrated into the landscape. Sip white hot chocolate with housemade red, blue, and yellow marshmallows at the on-site restaurant, Plato’s. 

And when you hit the slopes at Ajax, Snowmass, Buttermilk, or Aspen Highlands, pay a little extra attention to the leaf-shaped outlines you see all over the hill—it’s Bayer’s stamp, left everywhere.

Photo by Sarah Kuta

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