The latest book on the life and works of Barbara Stauffacher Solomon by the Hall of Femmes has been garnishing worldwide attention. Here, Mark Sinclair from the Creative Review UK reviews the book, and shares some of his favourite interview extracts with the artist.
Kaiser Channel 44 KBH TV Studio, 1965
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.
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.
Extract by Mark Sinclair for Creative Review UK 11/04/2017
To read the full article, please visit the Creative Review UK.
The Sea Ranch, 1965