Barbara Stauffacher Solomon trained first as a dancer in her native San Francisco and then, in the 1950s, travelled to Switzerland where she studied graphic design under Armin Hoffman. So assiduously did she absorb ‘The Master’s’ hard-line Modernist doctrine that even when she returned to 1960s America to work as a jobbing graphic designer, she stuck doggedly to the rigours of Swiss design at a time when, as she notes, ‘psychedelic squiggles’ were the norm.
Despite job offers from the USA Geigy office, and from stellar practitioners such as Masimo Vignelli, Lester Beale and Saul Bass, Stauffacher Solomon remained outside the graphic design bubble. She studied Architecture at the University of California, Berkeley. She taught at Harvard and Yale, and today, in her eighties, works as a landscape designer.
Yet she is perhaps best known for the gigantic and exuberant Supergraphics she painted on the walls the Sea Ranch project in northern California. For her it was ‘an opportunity to be an artist again, to paint on big white walls, from wall to wall, and from wall to ceiling, and to do what I wanted to do without the daily office grind of clients telling me what they wanted from me.’
The history of Supergraphics would be different if it were not for Barbara Stauffacher Solomon.
Can you talk about Armin Hoffman’s qualities as a teacher?
Armin was a serious teacher. The Kunstgewerbeschule (Artworkschool) was subsidized by the Swiss government for students selected to go there to learn a trade. Armin didn't talk much. No music or laughter in the studio. He sat down at each student’s desk and, seriously and silently, reworked what they were trying to draw. No reading different theories, no lectures with slides of other peoples’ work. We were expected to believe what Armin believed and do what he did. And we did. He showed us examples of what he thought good design – painted ceilings in primitive Swiss country churches; early Italian paintings; good typefaces; good modern art; good architecture. The new students learned from the best. Each Friday each student hung their work on the walls for a crit. 1st, 2nd, 3rd, and 4th year students were in the same class. The best student examined the newest. The crits were devastating.
You returned to the US after your studies in Switzerland and set up a studio? What sort of work were you doing?
Back in San Francisco I designed the SFMOMA monthly bulletins. Lawrence Halprin gave me an office in his building, and access to most of his architect/developer clients. I did architect's logos, stationery, brochures, posters, announcements, and signage. I was Art Director for Scanlan's Magazine, making drawings, ordering columns of type and pasting up pages in my office. There were no computers then. People had to go to printers or commercial artists for everything.
You have written about being a designer in the USA in the 1960s. You said: ‘Swiss graphics were completely new to San Francisco. Local typesetters used Times Roman, Baskerville, Garamond, Caslon, Bodoni, or Wild West typefaces …’ You go on to say that you were surrounded by ‘psychedelic squiggles’ and that you had to send text to Basel to have it set in Helvetica. Were you ever tempted to abandon your Swiss training in favour of what was fashionable then?
My reaction to the hippy stuff was to be more Swiss rigorous. Remember, I'd known the Beat poets, writers, artists, dopefiends and fakes who had taught the young hippies, and had fled all that. Armin was my master. His eyes were in my head. My clients just accepted that and they were amazed when I started winning design competitions.
Let’s talk about Supergraphics. Architectural writers jumped on the idea of Supergraphics and developed various theories around it. Can you say what you understand by the term?
For me Supergraphics was an opportunity to be an artist again, to paint on big white walls, from wall to wall, and from wall to ceiling, and to do what I wanted to do without the daily office grind of clients telling me what they wanted from me. Charles Moore talked and wrote of Supergraphics being the deconstruction of the white walls of Modernism, the beginning of Post-Modernism – but he did this only after I'd painted my stuff on his walls at The Sea Ranch.
No one mentioned art history, or that Picasso and Braque had pasted and painted words into their paintings in 1911—12, and Juan Gris in 1914. Or that Van Doesburg painted selected white walls of building interiors primary colours in 1928—29. As far as I know, neither the Cubist artists nor De Stijl's architects painted words directly onto walls, although printed posters and announcements were pasted on every kiosk, building, and cafe wall in Europe.
In 1969, before I closed my office and went back to UC, Mildred Friedman of the Walker Art Center asked me to write and illustrate a Design Quarterly magazine about my Supergraphics. I froze and asked my new young architecture professor husband Dan Solomon to join me in the project. We made EASY COME, EASY GO. I thought up the title and designed the publication, and he wrote the words – words about the 1960s, when everything was disposable: disposable champagne glasses; disposable paper dresses; disposable cardboard houses; disposable wives; disposable babies; and disposable art, i.e. Supergraphics.
Now, too late, I realized what I should have done. I should have designed the entire magazine front to back with only one word SUPERGRAPHICS. One letterform on each page.
Now that I happily live alone with my dog I have time to think, and I realize that I was always so frantically busy making money to live, taking care of my daughters, and worrying about men, that I never had time to think, least of all about my work. At my office I just drew up the first design I visualized so that I could leave to pick up Chloe or Nellie from school, shop for dinner, cook and clean, play wife, and do all the stuff that working mothers do.
You seem to have become disillusioned with graphic design and what you call the hypocrisy surrounding it. Can you talk about this?
I worked too hard, always alone, being frantic not famous. I liked working alone in my office with my sheets of white board and tubes of black and white paint, but I wasn't good at the self-promotion game. There was an economic downturn in the 1970s. After the Supergraphic flurry of press I seemed to get less interesting jobs, not more. Charles Moore and Bill Turnbull became aloof when I married Dan [Solomon]. It seems that I got too much press that didn't mention Charles. He hired other designers for his next projects and publicized his Sea Ranch buildings painted with my Supergraphic without crediting me.
Opportunities were offered (Venice Biennale, New York and Berlin) but I had Nellie, my daughter, in San Francisco, and I was trying to make my second marriage work. At that time I didn't write or talk about design. I worked. Clever verbal architects used my skills to promote their projects; mostly real estate developments. I designed good-design covers for many questionable commodities. I worked fast and well and my projects came in at or below the budget. I flattered the men, got paid, and went home to cook dinner. I taught at Yale, Harvard, and UC Berkeley. I gave assignments and crits but didn't have much to say.
It was 1973 and Nellie was one year old. I closed my office and took her to the swimming pool every day. When she was four I returned to UC to study what I hadn’t learned in Basel; the myths and misinterpretations behind the messages of the Modern Movement. I read mostly French philosophers cleverly discrediting the superficial visual covers I was so skilled at designing; the deceits I’d wrought on the world by camouflaging guileful land developments with good design covers, and learned that to design is to do the work of the Devil. My only drawings were lecture notes on 8 1/2”-by-11” sheets of paper.
You work now as a landscape designer. Does your early training in graphic design inform your work in landscape design?
Of course. Everything influences everything. But I went into landscape design and theory instead of architecture since my husband didn't want me working at his office or as an architect in competition with him. I did reinforce his planning work by drawing trees around his projects and with the book Green Architecture and the Agrarian Garden?
You went back to Sea Ranch in 2005 and found that your work had been ‘painted over’. How did you feel about this?
This is an edited version of a longer interview that can be found in the book Supergraphics – Transforming Space: Graphic Design for Walls, Buildings & Spaces [Unit 02]
217 x 280mm, 320 pages, paperback
Editors Tony Brook & Adrian Shaughnessy
Only available here and in restricted bookshops.