The original supergraphiste

Barbara Stauffacher Solomon’s pioneering large-scale graphic work from the late 1960s helped transform modern architectural and design practice, yet, despite her early success, she became disillusioned once she had “learned that to design is to do the work of the Devil”

Barbara Stauffacher Solomon was born in 1928. She trained first as a dancer in her native San Francisco and then, as a recently widowed mother of one, travelled to 1950s Switzerland where she studied graphic design under Armin Hofmann. 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 designer, she doggedly stuck to the rigours 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 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.

Despite her varied and inspirational career, she is best known for the epoch defining supergraphics she did for The Sea Ranch in 1960s California. Her work (painted over shortly after she created it) is a radical graphic statement that can stand comparison with many far more celebrated occupants of the graphic design canon. Yet with her customary modesty, Stauffacher Solomon admits to no burning ambition when she undertook her “bath house commission”. 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.

In the 1950s graphic design was hardly a recognised profession – what made you think you were suited to a career in graphic design?
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 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. I needed to make money, but mostly I wanted to get away from San Francisco and 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’d 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. Okay. Swiss T-squares would dig up the truth.

Were you aware of any of the developing trends in graphic design in 1950s USA? For instance, did you know about people such as Paul Rand, Lester Beale, Herbert Matter and Saul Bass?
No. In 1956, Armin spoke no English and like most Swiss people, he was critical of US 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 centre for Humanism, for designing type, for printing fine books of fine words.

In 1961, back in LA, 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 Beale. 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. Beale had remodelled 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.

Can you talk about Armin Hofmann’s qualities as a teacher?
Armin was a serious teacher. The Kunstgewerbe­schule (Artworkschool) was subsidised 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.

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. 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.

You have written that as a designer in 1960s San Francisco 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.

Now that I happily live alone with my dog I have time to think, and I realise 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 visualised 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.

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?
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 colours. At The Sea Ranch my California dancer’s body didn’t hesitate to paint big shapes (now Swiss straight lines and primary colours) on any big wall I could find.

Can you talk about your use of colour at Sea Ranch?
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 colours 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.

The architecture writer C Ray Smith- the man who claims to have 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?
At 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.

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?
I see a relation between supergraphics and billboards, both are painted or pasted onto the exteriors of buildings. 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 façade. 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.

You have written that you were not greatly affected by the publicity surrounding your Sea Ranch work. This makes me think that you didn’t realise what an important piece of work it was.
Thank you. At the time no one said I’d 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 AM Stern turned to me and said, “It’s all your fault.”

You also 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 publicised 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 then 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 8½”-by-11″ sheets of paper.

This is a slightly edited version of the interview with Barbara Stauffacher Solomon which appears in the book Supergraphics – Transforming Space: Graphic Design for Walls, Buildings & Spaces. The book is only available from the Unit Editions website, priced at £25 (plus P&P). More at uniteditions.com

 

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