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Barbara Stauffacher Solomon Has Been Shaking Up Design for Seven Decades

Solomon embraced interdisciplinary work long before it became fashionable.

Barbara Stauffacher Solomon at LAXART, May 31, 2019 (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

LOS ANGELES — “Everybody enjoyed mixing things up until everything looked alike,” writes Barbara Stauffacher Solomon in her illustrated book, Making the Invisible Visible. It is a characteristically contrarian statement for the designer and artist who has been mixing things up quite successfully throughout her seven-decade career. And she’s not done yet.

(photo by Ruben Diaz, courtesy the artist and LAXART)

Currently on view at LAXART in Hollywood, Relax Into the Invisible showcases Solomon’s boundary-pushing practice which spans design, architecture, painting, and writing. Abstracted letterforms and hard-edge graphics in black and orange dance across the walls and free-standing panels in the center of the room, spelling out the phrase “Exits Exist.” Large cubes in the same palette are stacked to resemble chairs or tables, or perhaps just minimalist sculpture. On the building’s facade, Solomon has painted “RELAXART” in a cool sans-serif font, a riff on the organization’s name that reflects the humorous word play that she has been exploring through a series of recent illustrated books, also on view in the show.

(photo by Ruben Diaz, courtesy the artist and LAXART)

“I changed the name from LAXART to RELAXART and if they take that on I just said, ‘don’t think of me as an artist, I’m a graphic designer. I get paid for this,’” she joked to me a couple months ago during the shows install. We sat around a small table in the gallery’s kitchen, munching on cheese and nuts, while Solomon zigged-zagged across the past 80 or so years, barely taking a break to chew. She wore two pairs of glasses on her head, and black Ugg boots on her feet that she somehow made look casually fashionable. She had recently been relegated to a wheelchair after falling in the rush to get some dummies to a publisher, but that did little to slow her down.

The tension between artist and designer, free spirit and breadwinner has been a constant with Bobbi, as Solomon is known to her friends. Born in 1928 as a third-generation San Franciscan (“I used to swim in the Bay every day,” she recalls), Solomon studied ballet and painting before meeting Frank Stauffacher, an experimental filmmaker more than a decade her senior, when she was 17. The two were married in 1948, but tragedy struck when Stauffacher died of a brain tumor in 1955. Widowed and with a young daughter to raise, Solomon knew she couldn’t support themselves as a dancer or artist, so she moved to Switzerland to study with influential graphic designer Armin Hofmann. The strict modernist foundation she received would prove invaluable.

She came back to the States in the early ’60s and got a job as a designer for Lawrence Halprin, a landscape architect who was part of a team planning a new development on the Sonoma Coast. Titled Sea Ranch, they envisioned it as a new kind of town where architecture would be integrated into the landscape instead of standing out.

“Larry gave me an office in his building and he gave me Sea Ranch, which they were doing upstairs,” she recalls. “So I started with Sea Ranch. Dumb luck.” It is still the project she is best known for.

Solomon began with the logo for the project: a bold, curving icon which was inspired by the horns of the sheep that lived on the land and the waves of the ocean. “I designed the logo as if Armin were sitting on my shoulder,” she remarks in a 2018 short film produced by Adobe.

Her next task was to design decoration for the Sea Ranch’s Swim and Tennis Club. Running short on funds, they couldn’t do more substantial architectural decoration, so Solomon was brought in to liven it up with paint.

“Al [Boeke, architect and planner] said go ahead and do it. That was the end of that,” she says with her typical nonchalance. “I just hired a couple of sign painters and we drove up in the truck and painted it in three days. The only idea I really knew I wanted was to paint a Big Blue Wave because the Pacific was right there.”

To the blue wave she added other bold, brightly colored graphic and text elements. The results would be called Supergraphics, a pioneering blend of design and architecture that she likened to a mix of dancing and drawing. “It wasn’t called Supergraphics, it’s just Bobbi was painting something,” she notes in the film. But her mix of rigid Swiss modernism and sunny California cool made waves and got a lot of attention including a cover story in Progressive Architecture magazine.

(photo by Ruben Diaz, courtesy the artist and LAXART)

Since the Sea Ranch days, Solomon has bounced between design work, raising a family (she married, had a child with, and divorced architect Daniel Solomon), and going back to school, studying architecture and then philosophy at UC Berkeley. In 1991, she collaborated with Vito Acconci and architect Stanley Saitowitz on “Ribbon of Light,” a two-mile strip of lighted glass bricks along San Francisco’s Embarcadero.

Through it all, however, her brand of aesthetic mash-ups proved difficult for others who wanted to put her in a box. When she applied for the Prix de Rome in the early ’80s, she wasn’t sure how to categorize herself, which box to check. “I phoned a friend who was on the Rome prize committee, and he said, ‘check em all.’” A high-profile designer on the committee, “didn’t want to let me in because I was a dilettante … It shows how different things are. He would call me a dilettante, and now everything is interdisciplinary, so finally that’s OK,” she says.

mockup page for one of Solomon’s books at LAXART. “You can see I used to be a dancer,” she says. “I used to be able to kick like this.” (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

A series of recent shows have brought renewed attention to her design work, from Sea Ranch to the present. Last year the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) opened a show about Sea Ranch alongside a smaller show of her more intimate design work. Across the Bay, Solomon painted a 63 by 30 foot wall painting titled “Land(e)scape” at the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive (BAMPFA), a series of black and orange-red stripes that respond to the architecture. And in October the Palm Springs Art Museum will open Breaking All the Rules featuring her “Ping Pong Table Paintings,” originally shown at SFMOMA in 1990, that playfully reference the green rectangles of landscape design, albeit ones that visitors can interact with.

The LAXART show, however, is the first to feature her books, which she has been working on for years with little attention. “They all loved Sea Ranch and want to talk about Supergraphics,” she bemoans. “Nobody was interested in my books.”

At last year’s LA Art Book Fair, Hamza Walker and Catherine Taft of LAXART discovered her books at the booth of publisher Owl Cave and were smitten, inviting her to do a show. The books range from the autobiography Why? Why Not? to the design manifesto Making the Invisible Visible and the cheeky footwear fetish romp Read Any Good Boots Lately? and allow her to explore all the avenues and tangents not possible through her more traditional design work. Feminism, modernism, personal narrative, poetry, theater, and language all shift and flow throughout their pages. Loosely based on the classic Swiss design grid, they are full of pasted blocks of text, graphic design elements, and collages. “This is like Supergraphics but from page to page instead of from wall to wall,” she explains.

(photo by Ruben Diaz, courtesy the artist and LAXART)

She is still mining modernism, but going back to an earlier vein than her Swiss training, back to Constructivist and Dada precedents. “This talk is really silly stupid, but dada, but profound,” she says. “Serious stupidity, you know, it’s all that Dada stuff. The only way to be serious is to be funny and silly … I’ve gone back to the little kid I was when I was married to Frank and knew all the Dada people like Man Ray.”

Her disillusionment with the promises of utopian modernism — and modernist design — may explain her embrace of this earlier form of more irreverent modernism. “Modernism was supposed to be for poor people to have nice clean houses with sunlight and air. That’s what Le Corbusier wanted to do, and now it’s ended up for the rich,” she reflects. “Only the rich could afford those snotty architects with their precious little white houses. So it becomes absolutely what it wasn’t.”

In keeping with the cross-disciplinary nature of her work, LAXART will be hosting an afternoon of dance and theater inspired by her work. Barnett Cohen will stage a theatrical reading of her absurdist book Utopia Myopia: 36 Plays On A Page, while Emily Mast will choreograph dancers to interact with the sculptural elements in the show with cues from Read Any Good Boots Lately?

These hybrid collaborations are Solomon’s sweet spot. “The thing that interests me is getting art off the canvas,” she says. “Fuck the canvas. It’s on walls, it’s out of the salon, it’s on the streets!”

Nellie King Solomon at LAXART (photo by Ruben Diaz, courtesy the artist and LAXART)

Barbara Stauffacher Solomon: Relax Into the Invisible continues at LAXART (California Route 2, 7000 Santa Monica Blvd, West Hollywood, Los Angeles) through August 10. The exhibition was curated by Hamza Walker and Catherine Taft.

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