Playing With Paint and Space

September 14, 2020

Adrian Shaughnessy interviews Barbara Stauffacher Solomon. The interview is taken from Adrian Shaughnessy’s Supergraphics. Transforming Space: Graphic Design for Walls, Buildings & Spaces (Unit Editions, 2010).


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© Courtesy of Barbara Stauffacher Solomon.

Barbara Stauffacher Solomon trained first as a dancer in her native San Francisco, and then as a recently widowed mother of one, she travelled to 1950s Switzerland where she studied graphic design under Armin Hofmann. So assiduously did she absorb “The Master’s” hardline modernist doctrine that even when she returned to the United States to work as a jobbing designer, she doggedly stuck to the rigors of Swiss design at a time when, as she notes, “psychedelic squiggles” were the norm.

Despite job offers from the US Geigy office and from stellar practitioners such as Massimo Vignelli, Lester Beall, 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.

Despite her varied and inspirational career, she is best known for the epoch defining supergraphics she did for Sea Ranch in 1960s California. Her masterwork (painted over shortly after she created it) is a radical graphic statement that can stand comparison with the work of many far more celebrated occupants of the graphic design canon. The history of supergraphics would be different if it were not for Barbara Stauffacher Solomon.

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Barbara Stauffacher Solomon. © Courtesy of Barbara Stauffacher Solomon.

Adrian Shaughnessy: In the 1950s, graphic design was hardly a recognized profession. What made you think you were suited to a career in graphic design?

Barbara Stauffacher Solomon: As a teenager and ballet dancer, and before marrying Frank Stauffacher, I danced in nightclubs to make money. But, at the same time, I studied art, had scholarships in painting and sculpture at San Francisco Art Institute, and studied in New York. Through Frank I met lots of people: filmmakers, writers, artists, and architects, in San Francisco, New York, Paris, and London. I worked at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) and I learned from them. I saw Graphis magazine regularly, though in 1956 when I went to Basel, I had no idea what a graphic designer was.

In 1956, high art was heroic and hung sanctified on the white walls of museums. Real artists were serious, transcendent, and incorruptible. In 1956, commercial art was low, hucksterism, printed propaganda, vulgar, trivial, and done for money. But I needed to make money. (Andy Warhol had been trained as a commercial artist and he had the assurance, brains, and nerves to stretch boundaries more brilliantly than anyone.) But mostly, I wanted to get away from San Francisco people staring at me after Frank died. A curator friend at the SFMOMA had just met the graphic designer Armin Hofmann at an Aspen Design Conference and suggested that, since I had studied art, I try graphic design. Okay. To rename commercial art as graphic design made it seem acceptable. Like being an architect. Architects designed. They designed things and were respectable. They were respected, had nice light white offices, dressed well, and were self-reliant. That sounded good. Swiss T-squares would dig up the truth.

AS: Were you aware of any of the developing trends in graphic design in the United States in the 50s? For instance, did you know about people such as Paul Rand, Lester Beall, Hebert Matter, and Saul Bass?

BSS: In 1956, Armin spoke no English, and like most Swiss people, he was critical of the United States’ power and politics. Armin knew Max Bill, but never mentioned Paul Rand. He met him later at Yale. Armin was influenced by the Swiss tradition. I never heard Armin or [Emil] Ruder talk about outside designers. They didn’t question themselves, their tradition, or the integrity of their mission. Since the Renaissance, Basel had been a center for humanism, for designing type, for printing fine books of fine words. In 1520, Hans Holbein the Younger, a member of a Basel guild of painters and craftsmen, did designs on commission that combined typefaces with images and made “teaching sketches” that offered insights into training based on fundamental principles. In 1525, Albrecht Dürer analyzed how “symbolic gestures flow organically into readable, pictorial signs.” (Armin used Dürer’s concepts of “point,” “line,” and “plane” as the organizing principles for his Graphic Design Manual published in 1965). In 1961, back in L.A., I asked Saul Bass for a job. He examined my Armin-approved portfolio and immediately offered me a position. I didn’t know much about Bass except that he was a big name.

I also met Lester Beall. He invited me to a charming lunch. He saw my portfolio, offered me a job, and invited me to visit his elegant studio in the New England countryside. Beall had remodeled an old barn; on one side of the barn were the lovely cows in their stalls, on the other side of a large glass wall were the young designers at their desks. I think at the time I couldn’t imagine living out there. It was too cute for me.

AS: You have written memorably: “In 1518, Thomas Moore’s Utopia was printed in Basel. In 1956, I thought I’d found it there.” Can you describe the utopia you found?

BSS: The Swiss (not all of them, but mainly Armin and his wife Dorli) saw that I was both serious and desperate, and they helped me in a way most of the “fun loving” Californians I knew could not think of managing. Armin and Dorli were wonderful. They didn’t see Frank’s widow, but instead saw an unhappy young woman with a child and mother in tow. Armin got me into the Kunstgewerbeschule (School of Arts and Crafts) and Dorli found me an apartment that was lovely and affordable. Basel was neat, clean, orderly, and solid.

Too many of the Americans I knew through Frank proved to be “party” friends. They just watched and waited to see what I might do next, and which man I’d attach myself to. Because I’d worked at the SFMOMA helping Frank put on a last Art in Cinema1 series on American film directors, I knew some of the biggest movie directors in Hollywood. I suppose I could have asked them for a job. Charles Eames phoned me to ask if he could help. Doing what? Dancing or painting? I felt I really didn’t know how to do anything. It was the 1950s. Being a pretty young woman, “a tomato,” a woman artist, a widow with no money or a fancy family was pathetic. I didn’t like that. I had a little savings from dancing and a kid and a mother to support. So I went to Switzerland to learn something.

AS: Can you talk about Armin Hofmann’s qualities as a teacher?

BSS: Armin was a serious teacher. The Kunstgewerbeschule 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 was: 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. First, second, third, and fourth year students were in the same class. The best student examined the newest. The crits were devastating.

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© Courtesy of Barbara Stauffacher Solomon.

AS: You returned to the US after your studies in Switzerland and set up a studio? What sort of work were you doing?

BSS: 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.2 I did architect’s logos, stationery, brochures, posters, announcements, and signage. I was Art Director for Scanlan’s Monthly, 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.

AS: You have written this about being a designer in the 1960s: “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 favor of what was fashionable then?

BSS: My reaction to the hippy stuff was to be more Swiss rigorous. Remember, I’d known the Beat poets, writers, artists, dope fiends, 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.

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© Courtesy of Barbara Stauffacher Solomon.

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© Courtesy of Barbara Stauffacher Solomon.

AS: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?

BSS: 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 postmodernism—but he did this only after I had 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 colors 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 the 1960s, in the company of Frank’s friends and various Europeans, I was too insecure and not educated enough to write. I was afraid to talk, let alone have theories until the 1970s when I returned to the University of California (UC) in Berkeley. I learned to write at UC, in the History and Philosophy departments. They taught us how to research. And whatever we decided to write about, they only cared that we wrote it well, simply, and with the minimum of short and exact words.

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 EASYCOME, 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.

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The Sea Ranch. © Courtesy of Barbara Stauffacher Solomon.

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The Sea Ranch. © Courtesy of Barbara Stauffacher Solomon.

AS: The work you did for The Sea Ranch development in Northern California in 1967 is credited with starting the trend for supergraphics. Can you describe how you came to do this project and what informed your designs?

BSS: I got the job to paint those walls because the Charles Moore/Bill Turnbull “Swim and Tennis Locker Rooms” were almost completed. They were over budget, and the white painted interior walls of the locker rooms looked unfinished. I was having an affair with the client developer Al Boeke. Paint was cheap. Al hired me to paint the interiors of the two buildings.

In the 1940s, as a young art student at the California School of Fine Art (now SF Art Institute), I’d painted big canvases with a California abstract expressionist exuberance only later to be crammed by Armin into Swiss straight lines and primary colors. At The Sea Ranch my California dancer’s body didn’t hesitate to paint big shapes (now Swiss straight lines and primary colors) on any big wall I could find.

AS: Your use of color at The Sea Ranch was bold and vivid. You have said you were influenced by, amongst other things, New York comic book artists. Can you talk about your use of color at The Sea Ranch?

BSS: Did I say comic books? Not really. That was the pop artists. I was directly influenced by what I’d learned in Basel: the white and black shapes of Helvetica type, straight lines and geometric shapes, bold colors directly out of the paint can. And perhaps I remembered the early pop art I’d seen in 1951 at the ICA Gallery in London and at Eduardo Paolozzi’s studio.

I think I always saw things as multifaceted, multimedia, and multidimensional, in books, in things that happened by chance, and in design. Regarding 3-D art, I had studied sculpture. Once I had sculpted a ballet dancer on an armature. It was rather big and I wanted to paint her with pink tights, black hair, and red lips. My teacher said, “No. You must not mix medias.” And I did what I was told then. But that must have been in 1946 when I was a 14. I’d travelled in Europe, seen most of the best architecture, knew a lot of architects, and lived in a Frank Lloyd Wright house in Hillsborough. I didn’t talk much, but I saw things.

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The Sea Ranch. © Courtesy of Barbara Stauffacher Solomon.

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The Sea Ranch. © Courtesy of Barbara Stauffacher Solomon.

AS: The architecture writer C. Ray Smith—the man who coined the term supergraphics—says this about your work: “Any number of critics felt that designer Solomon’s work was stronger, more
effective, and more communicative than the supergraphic designs aimed at spatial manipulation by means of gestalt.” If he’s right, this suggests that your intentions were purely decorative. Was this the case?

BSS: At The Sea Ranch, I was playing with painting and with space, moving through the space; one arrow up the stairs, another arrow down the stairs, moving with the striped blue wave from a far corner of the lowest level of the space to the highest ceiling point at the top of the space, making the Pacific wave outside the building crash over and into the building, and making a person run up the stairs to get there.

AS: Subsequently to the development of supergraphics as a purely architectural practice, it has become one of the main ways in which commercial messages are relayed to consumers. We are surrounded by giant commercial graphics in the urban environment. What is your view on this development? Do you see a link between your pioneering Sea Ranch work and giant advertising billboards?

BSS: I see a relation between supergraphics and billboards: both are painted or pasted onto the exteriors of building. But I see relationships between everything. In the 1960s, architect Robert Venturi (a friend of Charles Moore at Yale) declared: “Architecture is a sign, a decorated box, a decorated box selling something.” Venturi liked Vegas: the giant neon signs covering the warehouse-box-like buildings built in 1950s Vegas. Every hunk of architecture sells something, whether with fancy materials; particular windows, doors, and other symbols, or plastered with billboards or painted words. The street front of each building is a facade. The white columns of a temple sell God, banking, or know-how. Granite sells wealth. Glass walls sell power. Store windows brightly and filled with diamonds or Levi’s, sell whatever to whomever. Friendly porches outside are supposed to sell friendly people inside.

Al Boeke wanted me to paint my Rams Head Sea Ranch logo on the exterior of Esherick’s General Store so that all the cars and trucks on Highway 1, along the Pacific Coast, would see it and get the idea that inside were nice young folk honestly selling second-homes like the nice old folks that used to paint ads for FEED or AJAX on the sides of their roadside Marin and Sonoma County barns. I thought supergraphics should be on interiors only.

My house in San Francisco presents a different selling job. The ordinary four-story building was carefully covered with white painted horizontal wood boards in keeping with this old San Francisco neighborhood, but when you walk up the original wooden exterior stairs and open the door you see a gutted and remodeled glass and white painted two-story Corbusier Maison Citrohan architectural space. An invisible exterior covers a sock-it-to-you interior.

AS: You have written that you were not greatly affected by the publicity surrounding your The Sea Ranch work. This makes me think that you didn’t realize what an important piece of work it was. Another designer might have sensed that they were onto a rich source of commissions and exploited it further.

BSS: Thank you. At the time, no one said I had done “an important piece of work.” You say it now and it is lovely to hear someone say it. Supergraphics was easy to copy. Walking past an enormous vulgar SELLING OUT CHEAP supergraphic sign on Fifth Avenue, my friend, the architect Robert A.M. Stern turned to me and said, “It’s all your fault.”

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Kaiser Channel 44, KBHT T.V. Studio, San Francisco. © Courtesy of Barbara Stauffacher Solomon.

AS: You had two brushes with design institutions in the US that have become beacons of modernist graphic design. You did some work for Geigy, and Massimo Vignelli, then at Unimark, offered you a job which you declined. Can you talk about these experiences?

BSS: I was in New York working at Geigy to make some money while I waited for Heinz Hossdorf to get a divorce and marry me. I just wanted to get back to Switzerland and be with my daughter Chloe who was at the Rudolph Steiner School in Avrona. I was more concerned with all this than my career. My assignment at Geigy was to design an alphabet based on Helvetica for pill packages that had already been designed by someone else. Not very exciting. I did the work for a few months and returned to Heinz and more waiting. As for Unimark, I feared that if I worked there, I’d go to hell in New York.

AS: You also seem to have become disillusioned with graphic design and what you call the hypocrisy surrounding it. Can you talk about this?

BSS: 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 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 8.5”-by-11” sheets of paper.

My History Department thesis—Visual Politics in the Piazza—dealt with site-specific performances as visual propaganda utilizing great art, grand architecture, and supergraphics: the parade of words on posters, banners, flags, street signs, and in colored lights; shiny boots and crisp uniforms reflected in klieg lights, fireworks rising above and confetti falling on choreographed crowds wowing the audience; the Pope’s spectacular ceremonies influencing Italian Futurist mass demonstrations, and Futurists performances influencing visual tricks employed by their friend Mussolini; and Hitler one-upped them all with the best lightshow, parades, logo, flags, and supergraphic performances. That was fun, although it was never published, but my thesis influenced my professor Dr. Peter Selz to write Visual Politics in California and Beyond (University of California Press, 2006).

AS: You mentioned teaching at Yale. I’m intrigued by the “elevator project” you set your students. Could you describe this?

BSS: The insides of the metal elevators were the only space in the Yale Architectural building not built of stone—and stone was regarded as sacred! So we did elevators instead. The students loved the fun and freedom of playing with colors and non-sacred paint while I kidded them that they might learn more about building in an engineering class.

AS: You went on to work as a landscape designer. Does your early training in graphic design inform your work in landscape design?

BSS: 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.

AS: You have said that you went back to The Sea Ranch in 2005 and found that your work had been painted over. How did you feel about this?

BSS: Terrible.

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© Courtesy of Barbara Stauffacher Solomon.

In anticipation of the December 2018 exhibition The Sea Ranch: Architecture, Environment, and Idealism at SFMOMA, Barbara Stauffacher Solomon was invited back in October 2018 to The Sea Ranch to paint a new version of her original supergraphics. The original two-story space had been remodeled into one level but the high shed roofline remained. Bobbie writes how much she enjoys the present political implications of the original giant blue wave. So, with the painter Nellie King Solomon, her daughter, doing the painting, they made a new giant blue wave breaking into a new giant W.

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The Sea Ranch, 2018. © Courtesy of Barbara Stauffacher Solomon.

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Barbara Stauffacher Solomon: My new work.

It has been sixty-two years since the original supergraphics. In 2018, I am able to free lines and colors not only from the frame but from the walls.

LAND(E)SCAPE (2018) on the Art Wall at BAMPFA which can be walked into seen from the street and freely walked into by any passerby.

New Sea Ranch supergraphics where the viewer not only walks into art but can take off her clothes and shower in the giant blue wave.

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LAND(E)SCAPE, BAMPFA, 2018. © Courtesy of Barbara Stauffacher Solomon.

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LAND(E)SCAPE, BAMPFA, 2018. © Courtesy of Barbara Stauffacher Solomon.

1 “Art in Cinema,” series of experimental films presented by Frank Stauffacher at San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Stauffacher died in 1948 from a brain tumor.
2 Lawrence Halprin (1916–2009), American landscape architect, designer, and teacher.