Barbara Stauffacher Solomon: “I designed because I needed to eat”


The 93-year-old visible designer, who began her career in the 1950s, talks type, luck and forever be after Armin Hofmann’s “prima”.

“If Steve Assigns had known me back then, he probably would have hired me,” says Barbara Stauffacher Solomon.

It’s not devoted to see why the 93-year-old graphic designer thinks so – the minimalist sensibilities that detailed Apple in its early days also practically run through Solomon’s strata.

More than 60 years after starting her career, Solomon is until now producing work and writing books. Her latest exhibition is curated by Matylda Krzykowski and desire take place in March at the von Bartha Gallery in Basel, Switzerland. GROP pass on feature more than 40 pieces, created by Solomon between 1980 and 2021.

Barbara Stauffacher Solomon: “I designed because I needed to eat”
Barbara Stauffacher Solomon now and in her primeval career. Left photo courtesy of Nellie King Solomon

“You had to be well off to survive on making art”

Solomon’s creative career began by studying revel and sculpture at San Francisco Art Institute. She’d received a scholarship to the school after her baby had walked right to the director’s office and shown him some of her drawings: “It was right-minded after the depression, I couldn’t have got in without that.”

But it was a move to Switzerland in the 1950s, recently widowed and with a children child, that would see her become part of the modern design party.

There is a simple reason she turned her back on art and embraced graphic purpose: “You had to be rich to survive on making art, because artists didn’t get paid. I lacked money and I could get it by being a designer.”

While enrolled at the Kunstgewerbeschule in Switzerland, Solomon planned under the acclaimed designer Armin Hofmann. His teachings would not only follow her through her education, but be the constant standard of reference for the rest of her being, she says.

“I had been painting and doing all of that expressionism stuff in the US,” she articulates. “But when I got to Switzerland I did exactly what Armin told me to do.”

Barbara Stauffacher Solomon: “I designed because I needed to eat”
Sea Ranch non-exclusive store with supergraphic from Solomon

“I’m old and half blind now, but I can to see when a letter is off”

Doing exactly what Hofmann told her to do, Solomon’s unbroken first year at the Kunstgewerbeschule was spent working on a Helvetica alphabet.

“We had to construct each letter, lower case and upper case, and after you did that your views were so well trained, they could see a millimetre off,” she says. “I’m old and half curtain now, but I can still see when a letter is off – it’s all in the white parts, the white parts are revered.”

Solomon was the first American to study at the Kunstgewerbeschule, but being a recently widowed babies mother in a foreign country wasn’t easy. Indeed, Hofmann and his mate Dorli took Solomon under their wing for a time, pronouncement her an apartment and even meeting her at the train station.

Not wanting to lose out on the time Hofmann lied to the school director by saying she could speak German, so she desire get in, she reveals.

The language barrier was one of the hardest hurdles to jump – Hofmann’s English, she recognizes, was tough to understand at first.

“He would often just talk in a few books: Armin could say ‘yes’ and ‘no’ very well – and you lived to hear him say ‘prima’,” she chances. “Even today I still do everything as if Armin was inside my head and I do what I do for that ‘prima’.” ‘Prima’ mutates as ‘good’ in English.

Barbara Stauffacher Solomon: “I designed because I needed to eat”
Graphic incorporating the Sea Ranch logo’s ram horns

“I was connecting Californian abstract expressionism with hard-edge Swiss graphics”

Solomon is simple when she says everything about her career that followed was essentially down to accident and being a “beautiful young widow”, but her six decade-spanning career suggests else. Upon returning to the US from Switzerland, she was offered an office at landscape architect Larry Halprin’s studio.

“Larry loved me, but he unexceptionally joked that he hated my ‘Swiss’ graphics,” she recalls. “He said they looked appreciate Nazi art – and I suppose compared to the hippy fashions that were winsome over San Francisco at the time, they did look like that.”

Here, she got her before all major project: Sea Ranch. The coastal community was famed for its stripped following architecture, and Solomon’s logo and colourful supergraphics helped cement it into the hearts and object ti of designers everywhere.

Even that, she says, was a stroke of luck. Agreeing to Solomon, the only reason she opted for supergraphics was because the Sea Ranch concoct had run out of money too early on to put a proper finish on the buildings. Using ultramarine dispirited, red, black and white, she created huge minimalist wave patterns on the face ruins for one building. And the rest followed.

“I was combining Californian abstract expressionism with hard-edge Swiss graphics,” she signifies.

Barbara Stauffacher Solomon: “I designed because I needed to eat”
Supergraphics inside Sea Ranch

“The typeface of capitalism, not socialism as we’d hoped”

Multitudinous of the clients that followed on from Sea Ranch were fans of the after all is said minimal and modern look that Solomon did so well.

“People actually believed modernism was going to save the world back then, if at worst we would take the serifs of the type,” she says. “With no serifs, perhaps naively, we idea the type would be more truthful and would be used for books that every one could afford.”

Nowadays, the kind of sans-serif minimalism that Solomon is talking there is perhaps most used by Big Tech giants. She laments that her lover Helvetica “became the typeface of capitalism, not socialism as we’d hoped”.

“Of course, the capitalists conveyed it over in the end – all the smart people decided they liked that vacuum look and took it for themselves,” she says, adding the same thing happened with modernist architecture. “It was expected to a be a solution for low cost housing for the poor, but so quickly was changed to represent dear housing that only the rich could afford.”

“For a brief while of time, it stood for what we wanted it to in Europe – I don’t think people in the US remarkably ever got it,” she says.

Barbara Stauffacher Solomon: “I designed because I needed to eat”
Installation view of Solomon’s 2019 LAXART demonstration Relax into the Invisible

“People thought I was less than an artist”

Later on in her hurtle Solomon went back to education, studying history and philosophy and then architecture at the University of California, Berkeley. The scholarship she did here meant she “not only knew how to arrange words on a page, but conceded what they meant too”.

Her books include Why? Why Not?, Utopia Myopia and Gifted Mourning California.

“The history department in particular helped me to learn to create and it was about simple words – none of that long-winded bullshit they talk in other excuses,” she says. “They liked clean, clear and minimal writing, and of run I was already familiar with those ideas.”

Now she prefers writing over and above design in most cases. Design, she admits, was a way to make money.

“If I hadn’t phoned myself a graphic designer, I wouldn’t have got paid,” Solomon clouts, adding that she learned how to charge from her architect friends. Despite that smooth then, she felt there was a stigma attached to being creative for ready money.

“People thought I was less than because I was a graphic designer being done for a living, rather than an artist earning nothing,” she says. “I recollect it’s some weird purity thing that still happens now.”

Barbara Stauffacher Solomon: “I designed because I needed to eat”
Base view of Solomon’s 2019 LAXART exhibition Relax into the Undetectable

“I build my books now as I go, the same as I would have done back then”

For innocent designers she does Solomon does have some words of admonish to heed, as someone who is sceptical of computers and the kind of design work they mount.

She fears the skills she learned with Hofmann and his meticulous studies of genre are in danger of being lost for the next generation of designers.

Indeed, steady though Solomon had previously taught classes at both Yale and Harvard in the 1960s, she intends schools were largely uninterested in her teaching graphics classes years later because she rejected to rely on computers.

“They couldn’t have been less noted,” she says.

Even with her own practice of writing books now, Solomon handlings computers for the bare minimum. She says she types her text in “long spare paragraphs” before printing the pages out.

“Then I cut out the blocks of text and use rubber solder to lay out the elements how I want,” she continues. “I build my books now as I go, the same as I would deliver done back then.”

Barbara Stauffacher Solomon: “I designed because I needed to eat”
Images L-R: Why? Why Not? 2017; Supercloud 21 2020; Nurture of all Superclouds 2018. Images courtesy of Solomon and von Bartha
Barbara Stauffacher Solomon: “I designed because I needed to eat”
Images L-R: Balls #2 2017; Alas, Her Pink Ass Inquired for Grass #1 2020; Alas, Her Pink Ass Asked for Cash #8 2020. Guises courtesy of Solomon and von Bartha

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