Alice Twemlow | Essays

A Look Back at Aspen, 1970

Saul Bass and Ralph Caplan at the IDCA.  All images are stills from 
Aspen: 70, a documentary made by Eli Noyes and Claudia Weill, 1970

The scene is a glorious mid-summer’s evening on the first day of the 1970 International Design Conference at Aspen. As the sun begins to dip behind the snow-capped mountains that encircle the idyllic Colorado resort town, the black-and-white footage, shot by Eli Noyes (the son of Eliot Noyes) and his girlfriend Claudia Weill, shows IDCA board members and their wives gathering for a cocktail party. Drinks have been set out on the terrace of one of the modernist houses in the Aspen Meadows complex, designed by Herbert Bayer. Bayer, the Austrian émigré and consultant to Container Corporation of America, who moved to Aspen in 1946, is there, dapper in his suit and cravat, suntanned and still handsome at 70. Also sipping gimlets and dressed in plaid jackets and ties are: Saul Bass, the Los Angeles-based motion graphics designer; Eliot Noyes, design director at IBM and IDCA president since 1965; and George Nelson, design director at Herman Miller. The men’s hair, if they still have it, is cropped close and grey. Their wives’ hair has been curled and set and barely moves in the breeze that ruffles the surrounding aspen trees. They wear large sunglasses with their cocktail dresses and pearls.

Meanwhile, beyond this soiree for the cognoscenti of modernist-American-design and architecture, a very different scene is gaining momentum. Camped in the meadows beyond the tented auditorium, where the conference will be held, a large number of dissenters gather. Designers and architects, some of them young teachers, and a number of art and environmental action groups, many of which are from Berkeley, California, have just made the 1,000-odd mile journey to Colorado in chartered buses.

Members of the radical architecture and art collective, The Ant Farm

Among the groups arriving are the San Francisco media collective known as The Ant Farm who, by 1970, were well known for their advocacy of a nomadic lifestyle, their use of inflatable structures as the setting for free-form architectural performances, and their experimental multimedia image making. And, since the theme of the conference this year is “Environment by Design,” several representatives of environmental action groups are also gathering, invited to the conference on behalf of the IDCA by Sim van der Ryn, an assistant professor of architecture at the University of California, Berkeley. Among them are Michael Doyle, founder of the Environmental Workshop in San Francisco, and Cliff Humphrey, founder of Ecology Action, originator of the first drop-off recycling center in the US, and whose Berkeley commune has just been featured in a New York Times Magazine cover story. With their waist-length hair, beards, open-necked shirts, bandanas and jean jackets, this group signals both the adherence to an alternative lifestyle and a set of values for which Berkeley is the unofficial American capital. The physical and philosophical distance from the conference organizers (some of whom have been attending the conference since its founding in 1951), and the "new" group, is as different as night and day.

Ecology Action founder, Cliff Humphrey, addresses seated students 

The 1970 International Design Conference at Aspen provided the setting for a collision between two very different conceptions of design. To the IDCA board members who organized the conference, design was a problem-solving activity in the service of industry, albeit with its roots in fine arts. For the most part, men such as Bass, Noyes and Nelson trained as artists and architects, but through their own pioneering work helped to define the disciplines of graphic and industrial design. Their careers flourished in the post-war period of economic expansion and were tied to the rise of a consumer society. Now in their fifties and sixties, and each holding prominent positions both within the newly professionalized design community and the flagship corporations of the day, they were enjoying the fruits of their labors.

IDCA president Eliot Noyes in discussion with students and members 
of improvisational theater group, The Moving Company

During the weeklong event, the environmental activists and the students protested the conference, targeting its lack of political engagement, its flimsy grasp of pressing environmental issues and its outmoded non-participatory format. In their view, design was not about the promulgation of good taste or the upholding of professional values; it had much larger social, and specifically environmental, repercussions for which designers must claim responsibility. Nor, for them, was design only about objects and structures; rather, they understood it in terms of interconnected systems and processes and specifically, within the context of the exploitation of natural resources and unchecked population growth.

Herbert Bayer at the IDCA

The protests at the 1970 Aspen conference epitomized more widespread clashes that took place during the late 1960s and early 1970s between an emerging counterculture and the economically and politically dominant regime, over issues such as; the U.S. government’s military intervention in Vietnam, the draft, and the civil rights movement. In terms of design discourse, the protests connected to contemporaneous debates in which radical architecture collectives such as Superstudio or UFO used their anti-design ethos to challenge modernist orthodoxies. More specifically, as part of a growing critique against corporate modernism and rationalist approaches toward design, students and activists occupied other design conferences of the period. The 1970's edition of the American Institute of Architects annual conference, in Boston, was also subject to a revolt in which student president Taylor Culver and his fellow students took over the podium from the AIA President.

Members of improvisational theater group, The Moving Company, 
walking amidst the audience 

The students’ criticisms bewildered and discomfited the conference leadership. Not only did they challenge the IDCA as an institution — and the modernist values that it espoused — but they also caused board members to question their personal ideals. Afterwards, several IDCA members described themselves as being “shaken” or “bruised” by the events. Noyes, for example, was so disillusioned that during the debriefing meeting that followed, he voted for the abandonment of the conference and resigned his IDCA presidency.

Many of the tensions between these central opposing visions of design continue to occupy the profession today. Certainly, the debate over design’s culpability for environmental damage has only intensified as the crisis has become more acute. Moreover, most professional design organizations still strike an uneasy balance between design’s relationship to commerce and its role as provocateur and social conscience.

An extended treatment of this subject is forthcoming in the first issue of the new journal Design & Culture.

Posted in: History, Politics

Comments [9]

Alice has captured a tumultuous moment in the history of the IDCA, one in which the zeitgeist challenged the notion of a design conference, its purpose, form and content. This was not twenty years into the tenure of the International Design Conference in Aspen and questions about its relevance continued through its fiftieth year, as more design conferences emerged, threatening both its uniqueness and its authority.

The IDCA had a long run of incredible conferences and deeply loyal regulars, many of whom remained active on the board for decades. Yet, its greatest attributes, even in the nostalgic recollections of its consistent advocates, were displayed best in the early years: using the Aspen environment to bring together designers and those from business, society, the arts and humanities to be stimulated by speakers and encouraged to participate in small, informal groups where ideas flourished.

By 2004, the IDCA was financially vulnerable and had evolved to a conference in an auditorium, underground at that. At this point, under the leadership of Agnes Bourne and Jim Luebbers, the conference was placed on solid financial grounds and AIGA offered to assume responsibility for adapting its legacy to a new socially relevant role engaging fully the integrative thinking of designers to contribute solutions to global social problems.

In 2005, a small group gathered to define the best course for the future. In 2006, the new model, dubbed the Aspen Design Summit, developed concepts to advance Majora Carter’s Sustainable South Bronx; aided Sergio Palleroni’s project to convert Katrina’s waste to furniture; inspired Barbara Blauminck to create the Cooper-Hewitt exhibition “Designing for the Other 90 Percent”, based on Paul Polak’s International Development Strategies, which also gained a new communications strategy; and Ann Willoughby proposed a project to provide women in Myanmar with micro-enterprises based on the digital camera.

This month, another branch of the transformation was launched, the Aspen Design Challenge, which has gone out to every design college in the world encouraging them to respond to a brief on raising awareness of clean water issues, with the chance to present student projects at Aspen Institute gatherings, in Davos and in Copenhagen during the World Summit on Climate Change.

AIGA is actively involved in a transformation of the IDCA today that draws a direct parallel to the frustrations of three decades ago. AIGA is hoping to capture all that was great about Aspen while inviting designers to go beyond the role that Alice proposes in her conclusion, as provocateur and social conscience. We are taking the role one step further, which is not to expound but to develop actionable solutions that demonstrate the greater value of design.
Ric Grefé

After the reading of this post I've been digging through my archives, and found a report of this conference published by the end of 1970 in french design magazine CRÉE.
It features Jean Baudrillard's declaration about ecology in design (France was the guest country that year).
As it may interest some readers out there, here's the link.
For non-french readers, please use your favorite translator.
Loïc Boyer

I was surprised by your simplification of the careers of Saul Bass, Eliot Noyes and George Nelson making it seem as though Bass only did film work, he didn't, Noyes worked directly for IBM, he didn't and Nelson worked directly for Herman Miller, he didn't.
Dan Lewis

What an interesting article about such a pivotal time. Looking into reading more about this conference. What a group of people.

dan, you're mincing butt hairs. they did. perhaps not for the full lot of their perspective careers but you're missing the point; this is a brief social observation, not a 300 page essay.
felix sockwell

Hi. Was the documentary, Aspen: 70, part of an ongoing series? What was Noyes and Weill's position as filmmakers? Is the documentary available anywhere? G
Glen Cummings

As a none designer with little knowledge of the people and events mentioned here, I found this article a very interesting (I have not enough time to read a full 300 page version even if it were available) it allows the layman an insight into design culture, and encourages further reading. Were the Ant Farm indirectly responsible for dismembered cadillacs stuck in the ceilings of clubs and bars during the 80's?
Steve Brown

For those interested in the topic and happen to be London in the next two months, I'd like to point out an exhibition by artist Martin Beck, due to open in London next week and which takes as a departure point the 1970 International Design Conference in Aspen.

The show is titled Panel 2: "Nothing better than a touch of ecology and catastrophe to unite the social classes..."; it will take place at Gasworks, south of the river and will run till 9 Nov 08. See: Link

We will be also showing the documentary IDCA, 1970 as part of the exhibition.
anna colin

It is startling to me, the large number of designer I meet who feel suspicious, apologetic, uncertain, or cynical about their role in design and the role of designers in culture. They seem to not believe themselves to be a part of the conversation that repeats over and over again the role designers can take in improving the conditions they experience around them.

This seems in stark contrast to the events of the 1970 Aspen conference, where a part of the design community thirsty for change, took it upon themselves to stir things up. I can't imagine anyone stealing the microphone at a professional event today.

I'm not saying it is appropriate, but I'd love to see it unfold.
Randy J. Hunt

Jobs | July 12