Eye of the Archive: Great Ideas of Western Man

This has been a wonderful off season thus far but to be frank, I’m counting down the days ’til December because I simply CANNOT CONTAIN my excitement for the new exhibit that will open at the Wheeler/Stallard Museum this winter. AHS will present “bayer & bauhaus: how design shaped aspen” opening December 4th as part of Bauhaus100Aspen, a community-wide celebration of the centenary of the German art school “Bauhaus.” The exhibit will explore Herbert Bayer, a Bauhaus artist who heavily influenced our little town of Aspen, Colorado. If Ella Stallard is my history crush, Bayer is an outright history HUNK and maintains cult-following hero status here in Aspen…

I’ve been watching while the AHS Curator builds this exhibit, and something utterly wonderful and exceedingly relevant caught my eye. Call me obsessed at this point, but the Container Corporation of America’s “Great Ideas of Western Man” advertising series leaves me breathless these days, so I’ll share a little bit about it with you here…

“It would seem unlikely that a manufacturer of short-lived paperboard boxes could make the slightest cultural impact upon his time. But the facts show that if even the humblest product is designed, manufactured, and distributed with a sense of human values and with a taste for quality, the world will recognize the presence of a creative force.” – Herbert Bayer

Yes, the manufacturer Herbert Bayer was referring to in this quote was Walter Paepcke’s Container Corporation of America, and yes, they made cardboard boxes… but they did it with style and consideration and most happily, they advertised their wares with art! With Herbert Bayer’s help. Here’s how it happened: following a Bauhaus exhibit at MOMA in 1938, Walter Paepcke hired Bauhaus designer Herbert Bayer as a consultant to his company to work primarily on advertising and graphic design. Together with others (including Paepcke’s wife Elizabeth who is rumored to have come up with the idea for the non-traditional advertising series) Bayer helped create “Great Ideas of Western Man,” an ad campaign that rolled out in 1950. The “ads” married quotes representing the canon of Western thought, with artists chosen by committee to interpret the words according to their creative whim. The quotes were curated by Mortimer Alder, pulled from his book A Syntopicon: An Index to The Great Ideas. (Alder, a Paepcke acquaintance, co-founded the Great Books discussion series and was also involved in the Goethe Bicentennial Conference in 1949 and the creation of the Aspen Institute in 1950).

The campaign was widely revered in both the advertising and art worlds. Walter wanted the ads to “serve public interest as well as our own” and indeed they did, transcending traditional advertising. The series continues to serve as an important example of the intersections between intellect and creativity, and artist and corporation. They also provide a FEAST for thought. I personally can’t get over how relevant the missives are, still today.

The Aspen Historical Society Collection includes over 100 originals from the campaign’s first eight years, 1950 – 1958 (the campaign continued for 25 years and included close to 200 ads). I’ve shared a few favorites below and the AHS marketing team promises to share more on social media in the coming months. I hope you enjoy this audacious and inspiring non-advertising advertising campaign as much as I do! And I hope you’ll come learn more about Herbert Bayer when the exhibit opens.

Until then, yours most reverently,

Archive Building

The “Eye of the Archive” blog post series, authored by A.B. (personified AHS Archive Building), offers an insider’s glimpse into the goings-on at Aspen Historical Society. Tune in for posts about the Collection, restoration projects, exhibit tid-bits, news around town, and more.