in conversation: Barbara Stauffacher Solomon

At 94 years old, Barbara “Bobbie” Stauffacher Solomon is still impatient to get to work every morning. Always hungry for her next project, the artist and graphic designer wakes up in the predawn hours and sits at her drafting table. Whether planning an immersive interior installation for a major museum or just trying to get a persistent idea out of her head, she starts by drawing on a humble white sheet of letter-sized paper and always has. Being a child of the Great Depression, a widow, and a single mother instilled an unshakable sense of frugality that happened to fit perfectly with post-war minimalist aesthetics. The logical merging of “less is more” with “make the best of what you have.”  Solomon has exhibited her work in museums around the world, produced public art installations, written eight books, and designed the brand identities for countless companies. Yet, she’s still best known for one of her first projects. The Supergraphics at Sea Ranch are as much a part of the place as the ragged Northern California coastline it sits atop. Huge, vibrantly painted circles, arrows, chevrons, and waves all bound by and bouncing off of the clean mid-century architecture, creating a sense of whimsy while also providing direction. They escape being labeled as adornment by being utilitarian, and they remain as poignant and powerful today as when they debuted. We were thrilled at the opportunity to speak with her earlier this year.

BSS: Why are you interested in interviewing me? I mean, I don’t know a damn thing about clothes.

BM: Well, it’s not so much about the clothes but the creative process. And we feel that your creative process is inspiring. Your graphics and the work you’ve continued to do across your lifespan have been inspiring.

BSS: Thank you, thank you. I’m one of those architect women who just wears a black turtleneck and black pants. I’ve worn different degrees of the same thing all my life. I was a ballet dancer, and I still wear my hair the same way.

BM: That’s our approach to dressing, too. Our clothes are all very simple and made for women who prefer to keep things timeless and easy. BSS: I’m big for that timeless look. I look at fashion all the time, as much as anybody, but I like very simple things. I’m such a minimalist, and I get worse the older I get. I just get more and more minimal.

BM: I’d love to dive into your background.

BSS: Well, I was born in San Francisco, and my parents were born in San Francisco. I grew up here until I was 17. My mother was a spoiled rich girl, and my parents divorced when I was young, so the only way she knew to make any money was to play the piano. So she did that at the San Francisco Ballet, and they put me in the classes there. In school, we had drawing lessons, and mine were so good that the local art institute at the time, the California School of Fine Arts, gave me a scholarship. My mother’s idea of how to raise a daughter was to keep her so busy she had no time to get in trouble or discover boys. So I was going to school, art school, ballet school. But my mother also made clothes to make extra money. When I was married to my first husband and knew so many fancy people, I looked good because my mother and I would just buy material and patterns, and she’d make a lot of what I wore. I never thought about it or talked to anyone about it because it’s a question nobody ever asked me.

BM: That’s become a lost skill. Do you remember some of the items that your mom made for you?

BSS: There’s a photograph of me at Larry Halprin’s. He always gave a big birthday party, and there’s a photo of me there with Charles Moore, who was the dean at Yale. Everybody in that bunch got famous later. I have on a white dress with blue polka dots and a full-length coat over it that was dark blue with white polka dots, and one is lined with the other, and it still looks good in the photograph when I see it. And I’m amazed whenever I see that photograph. At one point, I just wore plain beige camel hair for years. My mom made me a skirt, an Eisenhower jacket, and a camel hair coat. I used to bleach my hair blonde, so I was a blonde in pink lipstick in camel hair. With a suntan. Always with a suntan!

BM: An iconic look.

BSS: Of all the questions people ask me, no one ever asks how I dress. I was joking that you would ask me what you’re supposed to wear at Sea Ranch.

BM: Well, what would you wear at Sea Ranch?

BSS: Again, just beige pants — what are those? Khakis, and green ones, but primarily beige khakis with turtleneck sweaters. Most of the time, it was windy and cold up there, so you’d have a great collection of good, squishy sweaters. And boots, I always liked boots.

BM: While we’re on the topic of getting dressed, I’m curious now that we’re talking about it— which is amazing that no one’s asked you this yet — do you have a thought process behind why you gravitate towards simple clothes?

BSS: Well, I have a degree in architecture — I was part of the scene. When I lived in Europe, everyone wore black because it was too expensive to take things to the cleaners. In Paris, Switzerland, places like that.

BM: Can you tell me more about the project going into SFMoMA?

BSS: I have such a long history with them. I used to work there, actually. They were wonderful to me when my husband was dying. He started the Art in Cinema program, and when he was dying, they hired me and would pay me whether I was working or not so that we had some money to live on. Then, when I came back from Switzerland, I designed all their program guides, small ephemeral things that people now treat like great artworks. I’ve had shows of paintings and drawings there, too. So when they asked me to create Supergraphics to rework their lobby, I said why not? It’s called Strips of Stripes, and these huge slashes and circles spell out “OK” over and over again in the alphabet I designed, but all at different scales.

BM: Were you working as a graphic designer before you met Larry Halprin?

BSS: Well, no, Larry was a friend of my late husband’s. Larry was marvelous. When I returned from Switzerland, I had a great portfolio. Everyone I showed it to offered me jobs in LA and New York, but I wanted to be in San Francisco. My husband had shared office space with Larry a million years ago when they were all young. When I returned, he gave me a small office in his big building. He was among the first to buy an old warehouse and turn it into an office. One room had been the watchman’s room on the first floor, and they gave me that office. Larry would get invited to do something, and if they needed a graphic designer, they would just use me. It was terribly good luck because my first job from that was at Sea Ranch.

BM: That was your first job?

BSS: Yep, my first real one, at least. And no one paid attention to me. I went up with two painters, which took about three days. The architects weren’t around! And then Marion Conrad, the PR woman, got it in all the magazines, and it got so much press. That was when they became a big fan of Supergraphics everywhere.

BM: We walked into the Moonraker Athletic Club and were blown away by the color, boldness, and confidence in all of your line-work. Where do you even begin when approaching a blank canvas like that room?

BSS: The first step with anything is to make a diagonal line from the top right corner to the bottom left. Visualizing that diagonal always tells me what to do. It calls my attention to the nature of the space and once you know that, you’re halfway there. Whether it’s a drawing on a sheet of paper or the ceiling of a museum. At Sea Ranch with the wonderfully complicated architecture I also had the benefit of utility. A big S upstairs for the sauna, blue lines for the shower, things like that. Really, the space tells you what to do.

BM: You make it sound easy. Like it naturally flows out of you and your environment. One of the things I loved about your graphics in Sea Ranch was how unexpected they were in that rugged, natural landscape.

BSS: That was the opposite. I don’t know how much of that was subconscious, but I didn’t want to obstruct the beautiful views, so I put it all inside the buildings. No color was allowed outside, and all the architecture was made of natural materials that were weathered by the environment. And the landscape was all-natural, too. You couldn’t, for instance, plant a red rose in your garden. So from that, it was just the opposite when you opened the door to the rec center. It’s just what I do — I’ve always used these bold primary colors. So I did what I always do, but it was successful because it stood in stark contrast to the outside. It was a relief, and it was fun! I like my work to be fun and not too serious.

BM: Were you just poking fun at the seriousness of it all and all the rules?

BSS: You know, I was. No one’s ever asked me that, but I probably was. It wasn’t so much that they were being serious; it was that they were being pretentious. It was so pretentious. It was like putting a little Vegas in the middle of it all.

BM: So you’ve continued to follow your nose throughout your career.

BSS: Totally, I think about it all the time. I imagine everyone who ever taught me looking over my shoulder and examining my work.

BM: The trickiest part of design is knowing when to stop and when to leave space.

BSS: Oh yes. Because nature used to be very beautiful, but people didn’t stop. That’s also the problem with architects and landscape architects. They all seem to hate each other. The architect just wants the landscape architect to put some trees around their work.They all want someone else to stop so that they can keep going.

BM: With your life and your work in design, you’ve truly been a leader in the art world and graphic design and a trailblazer for women. It’s inspiring.

BSS: I appreciate that, but a lot of it was just survival. I grew up in the Great Depression and was a single mother in the 50’s. You just work as much as possible and as hard as possible to keep things going. I was never thinking about blazing trails or having a legacy. I was just working my ass off to prove I wasn’t just a pretty girl. When I got hired for the Sea Ranch job, one of the architects asked the client, “Why don’t you hire a professional?” That sums it up.

BM: And you proved them wrong. One last question. You make it sound so simple and easy, and that’s the true mark of a master. It brings me back to your start. You must have had a certain amount of confidence when you decided to be a graphic designer, then go into architecture and become a prolific artist. I’m curious where your confidence came from.

BSS: Oh, I’ve thought about that too. I think a lot of confidence just came because I had good training. Even now, as a client is telling me their problem, I can visualize the solution, and I think that just comes from lots and lots of experience. I’ve been thinking about it. I get impatient when I see people making bad designs because I think, “Why can’t they see?” It’s hard to explain, but you could write a whole book on it. If you wrote that book, it would be a hit.