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International Design Conference in Aspen records, 1949-2006

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International Design Conference in Aspen Records

Biographical/Historical Note

The International Design Conference in Aspen (IDCA) was the brainchild of a Chicago businessman, Walter Paepcke, president of the Container Corporation of America. Having discovered through his work that modern design could make business more profitable, Paepcke set up the conference to promote interaction between artists, manufacturers, and businessmen. The concept behind IDCA was a direct continuation of the basic philosophy of the Bauhaus, which also strove to improve relations between the worlds of art and commerce by designing otherwise banal household objects, such as lamps, tea pots or weavings, which could be industrially mass-produced.

Founded in 1951 together with its sister organizations, the Aspen Institute and the Aspen Music Festival, IDCA was a direct outgrowth of the Goethe Festival held in Aspen in 1949 and organized by Paepcke and Robert Hutchins, president of the University of Chicago. While the festival's immediate purpose was to celebrate the bicentennial of Goethe's birth, the larger goal was twofold: on the one hand it was supposed to draw positive attention to German culture, the status of which in the immediate post-war period was at an all-time low; and on the other hand, Paepcke hoped to attract audiences interested in culture to the small town in the mountains of Colorado and thereby bring new business to the area. The Goethe Festival was an enormous success and even before it had come to a conclusion, there was talk of sustaining such a gathering more permanently by convening on an annual basis. After some searching for a topic that could tie these annual conferences together, Paepcke decided to devote them to issues involving the relationship between design and commerce.

For the first conference convened in 1951, Paepcke enlisted the help of the renowned designer and former Bauhaus master teacher Herbert Bayer, who attracted to that first meeting an important group of businessmen, including Frank Stanton, president of CBS, William Connally of Johnson Wax, Stanley Marcus of Nieman Marcus, Burton G. Tremaine of the Miller Company, and Charles Zadok of Gimbel's department store. The design world was represented at the first conference by such luminaries as Josef Albers, Charles Eames, Louis I. Kahn, the architectural historian Edgar Kaufmann, Jr., Leo Lionni, who was then art director of Fortune magazine, the architect and furniture designer George Nelson, and Don Wallance, an industrial designer. The high standing and ambitious character of this group of speakers and attendees set the tone for all future conferences.

Over the course of more than 50 years of conferences, the IDCA gradually moved from an audience primarily representing the business and design worlds to a largely design-oriented group of speakers and attendees. Nonetheless, as late as 1996, when the conference theme was "GESTALT: Visions of German Design," the president of Mercedes-Benz North America was one of the speakers, as was the director of marketing for Bulthaup (kitchens). Similarly important representatives were present, for example, at the 1998 conference on sport design. And as the names of sponsors listed in the programs testify, throughout the history of IDCA leading corporations in the business world were consistently interested in the ideas explored at the conferences.

As for the design world, many of the most celebrated architects and designers (and historians working in these fields) of the post-World War II era have spoken at IDCA, along with a number of influential artists and theorists. Among these are Vito Acconci, Ron Arad, Reyner Banham, Saul Bass, Max Bill, Daniel Boorstin, John Cage, Giancarlo de Carlo, Ivan Chermayeff, Jay Chiat, Elizabeth Diller, Arthur Drexler, Peter Eisenman, Craig Elwood, John D. Entenza, R. Buckminster Fuller, David Gebhard, Frank Gehry, April Greiman, Rene d'Harnoncourt, Henry Russell Hitchcock, Ricky Jay, Sylvia Lavin, Greg Lynn, Richard Meier, Richard Neutra, Elliott Noyes, Nikolaus Pevsner, Robert Rauschenberg, Bernard Rudofsky, Paul Rudolph, Jonas Salk, Susan Sontag, Gloria Steinem, Robert A.M. Stern, Walter Dorwin Teague, Bill Viola, Wim Wenders, and Lorraine Wild. A chronological overview of the conference themes and speakers provides an excellent insight into the issues and major players at the forefront of graphic, industrial, and architectural design over a period of almost 55 years. The impact of computerization on modern design is also well documented in the conferences of the last twenty years.

The last IDCA conference was held in 2004. In the following year, under the aegis of the American Institute of Graphic Arts, the conference evolved into the much smaller, more focused Aspen Design Summit.

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