It’s 6 am in San Francisco, and Barbara Stauffacher Solomon picks up her phone after two rings. The 91-year-old Californian gal, who also goes by “Bobbie,” is at work in her studio. “Design is making everything look chic and good,” she tells me. In her 80 year career, Solomon has trained as a classical dancer, as an artist, graphic designer, architect, and historian. She has multiple degrees from some of the world’s top universities, and her highly influential Supergraphics — large-scale, colourful and meticulous — are considered groundbreaking. They are her most famous work, though she is just as known as a writer, (her publications include Why? Why Not? and Utopia Myopia) and recently completed a 63 ft mural. She has also taught design at Harvard and Yale, but she doesn’t do that now. “I’m horrified I’m so good at it – I can’t teach kids to be as rotten as I’ve trained to be!” Solomon recently went back to re-do her world-class work at Sea Ranch, California. There, she invites visitors to “participate by taking off their clothes and taking a shower, even” while looking at her big blue wave painting. Immersion doesn’t get much fuller than that. As a woman working in American starting out in the 60s, Solomon’s story isn’t the conventional narrative of being sidelined and shunted; she has enjoyed every success (both financial and artistic). Her place in art history is confirmed, and her works are now surveyed in museums and studied in books. At the same time, she reveals, design has often masked the more difficult and painful sides of her personal life.
Do you always wake up this early?
That’s my schedule! It’s crazy, I sort of live on Europe time! I wake up early and work when my mind works. I have this bad leg, so at about 10 I go swimming every morning, and after two or three hours swimming, I have a glass of wine – and then I’m a total disaster!
Have you ever seen my books?
I have but, I haven’t read your autobiography yet. I know your whole story is in there, but perhaps we can start from the beginning again: why did you go to Switzerland in the 1950s, and what was it like to study at the Basel Art Institute with Armin Hoffman?
I had this wonderful husband, the filmmaker Frank Stauffacher who I adored and he died. I was 26, and I had a 3-year-old child, Frank didn’t leave me any money, and his family dumped me, I suppose because my child was disabled and they were afraid I’d ask them for money and help. I was young and beautiful, and all the husbands of all my friends were running after me — and so I totally fled San Francisco! I had been trained as a painter, I got a scholarship to the San Francisco Arts Institute, and I was a ballet dancer because my mother played the piano at the ballet school. But I had to earn a living because I had a kid. Some people said, ‘learn how to be a graphic designer!’ And that seemed like a good idea. I had a friend who had met Hoffman at The Aspen Design conference in 1955, and since the best designers in the world were in Switzerland, I ended up in Basel. Armin Hoffman and his wife, Dorli met my train at the station when I arrived in Basel. They were angels. They saw my predicament when I arrived in Switzerland with this little kid. They found me an apartment and Armin lied to the head of the Basel Art Institute saying that I could speak German and that got me in. Then I learned all that stuff that I’m still doing today!
Then you came to America and started to work pretty quickly.
In 1962 I returned to San Francisco and opened a design office. In those days, if I had called myself a woman artist, I wouldn’t have made any money, and I couldn’t stand all the women artists I knew, with their fluffy, long skirts, they all thought they were the most sensitive flowers, you know. Besides, I liked architecture, and I liked the way the Russian Constructivists had integrated graphics and design. But when I work today, it’s as though Armin’s eyes are still over my shoulder! Except it’s crazier because I’m Californian.
Yes, people say you’re a mixture of Swiss Modernism and Californian cool.
It’s a little true; I can’t help it.
So how hard was it to make it when you came back?
Do you know Larry Halprin? [The late American landscape architect]. Larry gave me an office, and the first job he gave me was the Sea Ranch. I just did it. My training had been so good that it wasn’t tough at all! Larry handed me all the jobs in his office — all these San Francisco architects hired me to work with them. I had been educated to such a high level, and I was pretty, so they let me do whatever I wanted. It might have been very different if I hadn’t called it graphic design, if I’d just painted big letters on canvas, that would’ve been another kettle of fish. And in my old age, I’ve ended up becoming the artist I wanted to be but couldn’t be because I had to make money. It’s kind of marvellous.
You didn’t encounter the kind of sexism we’re very used to hearing about today?
A lot of architects would take credit for a lot of things I did, leaving my name off the press, but that’s now being remedied now. And if I’d said anything about it, I’d have been the bad guy!
Did that annoy you?
I mean, it’s just how it was at the time. I was happy I was making a lot of money. I worked very fast, obsessive and efficient — a combination of being a ballet dancer and Swiss trained. I had no idea of being inspired by design; I was just doing my job.
And then you kept creating – what motivated you?
I knew how to draw and paint, I got a degree in architecture, and at a certain point I went back to school because at a certain point I felt stupid, so I went back and got a degree in history and philosophy, then in architecture. So I understood not only what we were doing but why we were doing it. It was at the history department at Berkeley that I discovered writing, and now I like to write even more than drawing – but then that ends up being words. I got very interested in how the look of the word influences the meaning of the word. It’s just a matter of living long enough and doing enough things, and then you finally put all these things together. I designed not because I loved design, but because that was the only thing I knew to make a living. I could make any rotten looking thing look marvellous and sincere; I was trained to be as deceptive as possible. I could make pills look good for you! I can make anything look like it’s good for you. What’s wonderful about design? I don’t think it’s wonderful, I think it’s a big cover that everyone falls for. It’s visual propaganda, that’s what I call it. It doesn’t make it good or bad, but that’s what it is.
How does that relate to how you were feeling personally?
I looked good, I dressed well. I was miserable, but instead of looking miserable, I looked chic as hell. But it was just a cover! I had no time to grieve, I didn’t want to look as pathetic as I felt. I covered it up by designing flashy stuff and looking flashy.
How have times changed in terms of how we perceive the role of design?
When I was in Switzerland, they really thought design was going to save the world. And now of course, it’s a different world, nobody believes that any more. At the same time, everybody is terribly influenced by everything they see, they believe it. They don’t realise they’re being conned by the designers!
It’s one reason I stopped being a designer and went back to school, I thought I’d become an architect but instead, I started writing books. I wish you didn’t live so far away or I’d give you some books!
I’d love that. I’ve seen some of the texts written about you and your work, and some things online. Do you ever look at anything online?
Oh no, no, no, no no no! I use a computer like a typewriter. I print things out then I cut and paste. I either do big supergraphics, painted on a wall, or 8.5 by 11-inch drawings which end up as books; I design the pages, I go along and paste them up as drawings. I’m more concerned with white space than anything, still now, on every level. I was taught white space was sacred. I’ve been very fortunate, or perhaps I’m big-headed, but I just do my thing! I’m horrified when I see the work that’s online; I hate it! I hate the confusion of typefaces they use!
You trained with Hoffman, so I can’t argue with that!