The Big Bold World of Barbara Stauffacher Solomon

The Stockholm-based Hall of Femmes project has been publishing extensive interviews with “outstanding women in art direction and design” since 2009. In turning to the work of US designer Barbara Stauffacher Solomon, the collective celebrates an artist who is not only a pioneer of ‘supergraphics’ – a term first used in 1967 – but, at 88, still working on large-scale commissions and book projects. In its new title, Hall of Femmes’ Angela Tillman Sperandio and Samira Bouabana present a substantial interview with Stauffacher Solomon that takes in her childhood and early experiences of artistic practice, through to her professional work and relationships.

Here, we present an edited extract of the text where Stauffacher Solomon discusses her move to Europe in the 1950s, her encounters with Modernism and the emergence of one of her most recognised projects, The Sea Ranch, which was completed in 1965. The designer also talks about how she balanced work with family life – and her approach to working into her 80s.

Barbara Stauffacher Solomon beside an enamel exit sign at Lawrence Halprin’s house at The Sea Ranch. Top of post: Kaiser Channel 44 KBH TV Studio, 1965

In 1946, aged 17, Stauffacher Solomon met Frank Stauffacher at one of his Art In Cinema presentations of experimental films at San Francisco’s Museum of Modern Art. The screenings took the young nightclub dancer and art student into a world populated by artists and filmmakers such as Man Ray and Frank Capra. Barbara and Frank were married two years later (she was 19 and he was 32).

Your company of intellectuals and filmmakers sounds like modern mythology to us. These were artists in exile from Europe?

Everybody was here! Man Ray was a New Yorker by origin, seemingly a European, but because “the Nazis were in his beloved Paris”, he and his wife Julie were living in Los Angeles, at Hollywood and Vine. Henry Miller had settled in Big Sur. Others lived out the war in San Francisco. But most of these men and women went to Hollywood, like Fritz Lang, he worked at MGM. In my book Utopia Myopia I write about those exiles I knew from 1933 until 1945, all those who made California a cultural capital.

But in 1951, you decided to go to Europe?

In 1951, I found that I was pregnant, I went to Paris on my own. Later, Frank and Lil [Stauffacher Solomon’s mother] joined me in Paris, but closer to giving birth the three of us went to London. In January 1952, Chloe was born. I strolled up Oxford Street and got her a music box and myself a pair of high-heeled red shoes.

But London was bleak. Even though we hung out with the Independent Group, Frank showed his films at the ICA, and got a lot of recognition from people around us: the young artists, writers and filmmakers meeting at the Institute of Contemporary Arts were fed up with war and destruction and wanted colour and invented – even named – pop culture, long before it landed in the US. Frank was a great success when we were in London. TIME magazine had Frank on their list of ‘One Hundred Men of the Year for 1955’ but took him off the list when he died that same year.

What caused his death?

He had a brain tumour. It was probably growing in him for the seven years we were married.

How did you deal with the situation, being so young?

I was lonely, I missed my husband, I adored my husband and he died. He was 39, I was 26, our daughter was 3. Somehow, in that world of men and dope I had a strong sense of self-preservation. I might have gone to hell but instead I went to Switzerland.

The Sea Ranch, 1965

Why did you leave for Europe?

I always felt comfortable in Europe. People were good to me there. And there I wasn’t ‘the poor little widow’. Going to Basel didn’t seem such a big leap at the time. Remember, I had gone alone to Paris when I was pregnant, and I knew people there through Frank’s connections.

Was going to Switzerland, for you, a kind of ‘ win or lose’ situation? Or was it rather a ‘why not’ decision?

In San Francisco, everything was in a state of disorder. In Switzerland, everything was in order and I liked that. Perhaps it was the ballet dancer still in me. I liked the daily routine. Switzerland was more of a getaway. A lucky getaway.

You went to study for Armin Hofmann, did he understand your situation?

Armin just took one look at my crummy sketches and whatever I had brought with me, of course recognising all the flaws, but he said, “you know more about colour than I do”. He got me into the Kunstgewerbeschule, and his wife Dorli found me an apartment on the Rhine River. They also introduced me to their friend Heinz Hossdorf, the brilliant Swiss engineer I almost married.

Did Switzerland measure up to your expectations of order and structure?

Armin taught us to always make clear solutions. “Learn the rules”, he said. “Follow them. Later, if you are brilliant enough, you can break them.” In Switzerland, you weren’t supposed to be original. You were supposed to learn. At the Kunstgewerbeschule you would sit in rows in the classrooms, like a laboratory, doing your exercises. You would be working on a lower case ‘a’ for example, placing it on a grid, and Armin would walk by and without a word he would get you to stand up, and he’d sit down and white-out your sketch, correcting you to the absolute balance of that letter. Armin was there to teach us how to do it his way. And eventually you would learn how to do it Armin’s way.

To this day, the combination of being trained as a ballet dancer, and trained by a Swiss to be a designer: I think that’s why I haven’t fallen apart! Every Friday, you got an assignment, and every Friday all the classes put everything on the walls for a crit session. And the new students were just shit and the advanced students had all their stuff exactly as Armin had trained them to do. So the young students would learn not to do whatever they were doing. We learned from the advanced students. It was a brutal but marvellous way to teach.

When you got back from Switzerland, how did you set up your business?

I left Basel and opened a graphic design office in San Francisco in 1962. “Be your own boss”, my father had always said. “Open a peanut stand but let it be your own stand.” Okay. I phoned landscape architect Lawrence Halprin, who had been one of Frank’s friends. Larry looked over my Kunstgewerbeschule portfolio, hated “those Nazi graphics”, liked my English tweed jacket, and rented me a small office at 1620 Montgomery Street, a brick warehouse building he had just remodelled into studio offices.

I went back, and I broke all the rules. My designs were bigger and bolder than my Swiss classmates’ solutions had been. I am Californian! Give me a big white wall and I covered it with big red stripes. Give me the initials of your name or your firm’s name and I made hard edge logos with them.

Larry told all his clients to hire me. There were other architect offices in the building and all these guys just gave me their work. Great. I had clients. The rest was easy. I had an address. I ordered a phone and wrote a letter to a typographer in Basel to order type in order to paste-up my stationery, because Helvetica was not yet used in the USA. I had a carpenter build a long desk around the room and I stole a drafting stool from the architects upstairs.

Then I bought drafting tables and drafting board, paper, pencils, and pens, triangles, a T-square, black, white and vermillion designer’s colours, rubber cement and scissors to cut-and-paste type and pics for making camera-ready art. I had an Olivetti I’d brought from Basel, typed my own letters, put stamps on the envelopes and mailed them down the block. That was it.

The Sea Ranch, 1965

What kind of work did you get from hanging out at Larry’s landscape- architect office?

Work was coming from the architects around me. I did Supergraphic design in the garage of the Bank of America Building on California and Kearny Streets in San Francisco designed by architects Wurster, Bernardi & Emmons. Then one day Larry told me he was beginning a new job: the planning of a New Town Community along ten miles of the Pacific Coast north of San Francisco. The client, Al Boeke, a former architect, was using Castle and Cooke Hawaiian money for this development. Larry and Boeke selected a design team for the project: Charles Moore, Bill Turnbull (when they were first starting- out) and Joseph Esherick as the architects; me as the graphic designer.

I got Larry and Al to hire my best friend Marion Conrad as PR-person and, of course, Larry as the planner and landscape architect. Personal and business was all mixed up back then. This was when we were all very young, and of course these people would all be famous later. That was my first big job and probably my best work. Al let me paint my hard edge art on all the walls and ceilings of the first Moore/Turnbull-designed Swim and Tennis Club.

The Sea Ranch, 1965

We understand this was done in very short time?

The client Al Boeke wanted Joe Esherick to do model housing units – there would be six of them along one of the hedgerows on the site, and Charles and Bill were assigned to do the Condominium which became very famous. And they also did a swim and tennis club, which got to a certain point where they had used up all the money and the walls were all kind of rough – the outside looked great but the inside looked rather awful. Al gave me the job of painting it. That is when and where I first did Supergraphics.

First we painted it white. So they gave me the plans. I had an idea for one wall: the striped blue wave starting at the floor on the first level and ending at the ceiling on the second level. The Pacific Ocean was just outside that wall. After that I let one shape of wall lead to another, one series of stripes to another. I just got in the space with two sign painters I hired. I drew the outlines by hand on this one wall and then they painted it in flat colours, and then I moved to the next wall, and then to the next and the next. I told them what to do, and they were skilled to carry out my ideas and follow my instructions.

The Sea Ranch, 1965

Finally the women’s locker room was finished and the next day we did the men’s locker room. At the end of the work on the women’s locker room the contractor Mattie de Silva, Bill’s [Turnbull] friend, came around to look at what we were doing. I asked him” What do you think? Am I finished yet?”. “Make it happy kid!” he told me. I decided flat colours, it was totally De Stijl. I don’t think anyone realised that the colour range was De Stijl right through. I remember I had to do it in three days because I had to take my daughter Chloe back to school in Switzerland.

Did you ever consider applying Supergraphics on the exterior?

They wanted to put up Supergraphics on the exteriors at Sea Ranch, so that instead of looking at the sunset you would see the sunset with the graphics in front of it and I just thought that was offensive. I just didn’t want to force it onto everybody. I found it visually overpowering and I didn’t want to intrude into what is left of nature.

Besides, the exteriors were strictly regulated by a book of rules for new Sea Ranch property owners: only natural wood, only natural landscape material, no this, no that. You could not paint the houses white, according to the regulations, but I think a lot of those houses would have been much better painted white, like on the East Coast.

The Sea Ranch, 1965

The first houses, by Bill Turnbull, were very nice and simple and then they would do the trickiest they could think of, just to get on the cover of P/A (Progressive Architecture). That’s why, while Larry and Charles Moore and Al Boeke bought units on the cliff up there, I used my Sea Ranch earnings to buy a small white cabin on the beach at Stinson. There was a guy who had been a pilot in the Korean War and he used to get a small plane and fly us in. We would fly over my house at Stinson and up the coast to Sonoma, and see below all of a sudden there was this odd looking little forest of rooftops. The Sea Ranch, celebrating their 50th Anniversary, just had an architectural conference to discuss preservation plans of its architecture.

Sea Ranch is the project that was our introduction to you, but it was a breakthrough for everybody involved, right?

Marion gave the Sea Ranch so much PR, and she also gave me press. We all did our best work up there. Supergraphics was covered by everybody from Life and Look to Elle and Abitare. Progressive Architecture wrote all about it and put a shot of the women’s dressing room on their cover. They named this stuff Supergraphics. The Sea Ranch Supergraphics meant a lot to me because there I could bring graphic design to a new scale besides seducing the rich into buying real-estate.

Life magazine, May 1968, featuring examples of Stauffacher Solomon’s work

The notion that Charles Moore was the only designer behind Sea Ranch, is still prevalent in some articles and essays, do you find this credit confusion disturbing?

If you want me to talk about people copying my work all the time, I can just say, there’s nothing to do. Charles Moore used photos of his buildings at The Sea Ranch upon which I’d painted Supergraphics in magazines and not give me a credit line. People thought he’d done the stuff. And we had been good friends. Does that only happen to women? Are women supposed to expect it? It used to happen all the time. Does it still? Probably. You have to ask young women. I just accepted it. There was nothing I could do. What can I say? To whom?

We were under the impression that your work at Sea Ranch was still intact or properly restored, but we realise now that what is there is an unauthorised remake?

There was a heavy rain and the walls on the women’s side were water damaged. No one called me to restore my work. So Sea Ranch has been repainted, but not by me! That huge blue and white striped wave… I knew nothing. I only saw that the Sea Ranch had commissioned someone else to paint their version of my walls on my walls when I visited The Sea Ranch in 1990. I painted my Supergraphics in 1967. But it goes on. There was a barricade on 3rd Street for the new SFMOMA construction, where someone copied elements of my Supergraphics from The Sea Ranch. Supergraphics is easy to copy.

It seems that you were able to work really fast and efficiently.

Yes. I made a lot of money. I made money because I worked efficiently and fast and did everything myself. It was the sixties, life in the fast-lane. And we thought it would go on that way forever. I called myself a Graphic Designer and no one really knew what that meant. I never had a boss or advertising agency telling me what to do, what they wanted. Armin Hofmann’s eyes were still looking over my shoulder. I designed as he’d taught me to design.

Above: San Francisco Museum of Art programme guide covers, 1964-71

What did your independence mean to you at the time, that you were self-employed?

I had to make money, my husband had died, I had a little daughter to support, and I just had to make it, in any way I could figure out. It had no feminist overtones. There was no thinking about being a woman!

What was it like, being a woman and a professional designer in those days?

I needed money and I worked hard. All the time. Advantage of being a woman? Of course, whenever possible. Socially, when I was married to Frank some women were jealous; some female friends dumped me when Frank died and their husbands ran after me. Work-wise, some wives were jealous that I was respected for my work; most men liked a blonde career girl. But some women were wonderful friends through everything. No one noticed that I was a mother.

Above: San Francisco Museum of Art programme guide covers, 1964-71

So when was the magic switch when you felt you could do anything you wanted?

When I got old. Being young was too hard; being old is easy. And I enjoy making the books I am now making. Like the new book; Super-Silly-Us. Some people say it’s the best work I’ve done. I am 88. With making one drawing after another, 88 years of experience may give me some control deciding what to do next. With my life, it was all chance.

How do you feel about getting older?

Something about being old that I can tell you both – I keep telling younger women, it’s wonderful not to be in love with men. It’s such a relief. I’ve been so miserable. Either you are being nice to men because it’s good for business, or you’re really in love with them and they’re torturing you. One thing or another: you’re miserable! It’s so nice not to give a shit! It’s wonderful!

Being an old lady with enough money, a nice house, my nice car, a beautiful golden retriever; I can do anything I want! I don’t want to do anything except being back in my house doing my books, And even when I work with them, I can do what I want, I don’t have to do it for a client, I don’t have to sell anything to anyone. I love being old!

Hall of Femmes: Barbara Stauffacher Solomon (150 SEK) is published by Hall of Femmes and available from Creative direction: Hall of Femmes. Editor: Malin Zimm. Co-editor: Linda Johansson. This edited extract from the book is republished with permission

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