The practice some have of exempting themselves from capital letters traces its roots to the Bauhaus movement, which is turning 100 years old in 2019 and has had an outsized influence on Aspen.
Herbert Bayer, one of the masters to come out of the Dessau, Germany-based art and design school, was recruited by Walter Paepcke to come to Aspen in the late 1940s and helped establish its reputation as a cultural hub. While working at the Bauhaus school in the 1920s, one of his greatest achievements, according to local Bayer expert and Aspen Institute curator Lissa Ballinger, was the design of a font called the universal typeface.
The font eschewed any capital letters. This was a nod to the Bauhaus philosophy promoting accessibility, simplicity and a lack of ornamentation, Ballinger said. This took on a greater importance in Bayer’s native language of German, where most nouns are written using capital letters. There was also a practical reason. In the era of the printing press, each capital letter required an extra block.
Bayer steadfastly believed that the language should be simplified by striking capital letters entirely. Phonetically there is no difference between the upper and lower case and therefore they’re irrelevant to actually understanding the text, Ballinger said, channeling her understanding of Bayer’s thinking.
“He thought they were redundant and unnecessary,” she said.
Bayer walked his talk and there is nary a capital letter in his published writings, Ballinger added.
This occasionally presents a conundrum for curators and scholars. When quoting Bayer’s writings or thesis titles, do you respect his original intent in regard to a lack of capitalization or follow the established rules of modern English grammar? There is not always a cut-and-dried answer for Ballinger, but she emphasized that whenever the universal lowercase is used in Aspen Institute materials, it is done so deliberately.
The reporting for this article began with the reporter expressing frustration with adults who refuse to use capital letters in professional communications. Ballinger said it is important to draw the distinction between text where capitals are left out because of laziness and writings where the lack of capitalization is a stylistic choice.
She also noted that the no-capitalization ethos was more specific to Bayer than the overall Bauhaus legacy. The word “Bauhaus,” in fact, appears in all capitals on the outside of the school’s headquarters in Dessau.
“It was a philosophical discussion,” she said of the decision to use capitals.