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.