“If Steve Jobs had known me back then, he probably would have hired me,” says Barbara Stauffacher Solomon.
It’s not hard to see why the 93-year-old graphic designer thinks so – the minimalist sensibilities that defined Apple in its early days also practically run through Solomon’s veins.
More than 60 years after starting her career, Solomon is still producing work and writing books. Her latest exhibition is curated by Matylda Krzykowski and will take place in March at the von Bartha Gallery in Basel, Switzerland. GROP will feature more than 40 pieces, created by Solomon between 1980 and 2021.
“You had to be rich to survive on making art”
Solomon’s creative career began by studying painting and sculpture at San Francisco Art Institute. She’d received a scholarship to the school after her mother had walked right to the director’s office and shown him some of her drawings: “It was just 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 young child, that would see her become part of the modern design movement.
There is a simple reason she turned her back on art and embraced graphic design: “You had to be rich to survive on making art, because artists didn’t get paid. I needed money and I could get it by being a designer.”
While enrolled at the Kunstgewerbeschule in Switzerland, Solomon studied 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 life, she says.
“I had been painting and doing all of that expressionism stuff in the US,” she says. “But when I got to Switzerland I did exactly what Armin told me to do.”
“I’m old and half blind now, but I can still see when a letter is off”
Doing exactly what Hofmann told her to do, Solomon’s entire first year at the Kunstgewerbeschule was spent working on a Helvetica alphabet.
“We had to design each letter, lower case and upper case, and after you did that your eyes were so well trained, they could see a millimetre off,” she says. “I’m old and half blind now, but I can still see when a letter is off – it’s all in the white parts, the white parts are sacred.”
Solomon was the first American to study at the Kunstgewerbeschule, but being a recently widowed young mother in a foreign country wasn’t easy. Indeed, Hofmann and his wife Dorli took Solomon under their wing for a time, finding her an apartment and even meeting her at the train station.
Not wanting to lose out on the opportunity Hofmann lied to the school director by saying she could speak German, so she would get in, she reveals.
The language barrier was one of the hardest hurdles to jump – Hofmann’s English, she admits, was tough to understand at first.
“He would often just talk in a few words: Armin could say ‘yes’ and ‘no’ very well – and you lived to hear him say ‘prima’,” she says. “Even today I still do everything as if Armin was inside my head and I do what I do for that ‘prima’.” ‘Prima’ translates as ‘good’ in English.
“I was combining Californian abstract expressionism with hard-edge Swiss graphics”
Solomon is modest when she says everything about her career that followed was essentially down to luck and being a “beautiful young widow”, but her six decade-spanning career suggests otherwise. Upon returning to the US from Switzerland, she was offered an office at landscape architect Larry Halprin’s studio.
“Larry loved me, but he always joked that he hated my ‘Swiss’ graphics,” she recalls. “He said they looked like Nazi art – and I suppose compared to the hippy fashions that were taking over San Francisco at the time, they did look like that.”
Here, she got her first major project: Sea Ranch. The coastal community was famed for its stripped back architecture, and Solomon’s logo and colourful supergraphics helped cement it into the hearts and minds of designers everywhere.
Even that, she says, was a stroke of luck. According to Solomon, the only reason she opted for supergraphics was because the Sea Ranch project had run out of money too early on to put a proper finish on the buildings. Using ultramarine blue, red, black and white, she created huge minimalist wave patterns on the walls for one building. And the rest followed.
“I was combining Californian abstract expressionism with hard-edge Swiss graphics,” she says.
“The typeface of capitalism, not socialism as we’d hoped”
Many of the clients that followed on from Sea Ranch were fans of the same minimal and modern look that Solomon did so well.
“People really believed modernism was going to save the world back then, if only we would take the serifs of the type,” she says. “With no serifs, perhaps naively, we thought the type would be more truthful and would be used for books that everyone could afford.”
Nowadays, the kind of sans-serif minimalism that Solomon is talking about is perhaps most used by Big Tech giants. She laments that her beloved Helvetica “became the typeface of capitalism, not socialism as we’d hoped”.
“Of course, the capitalists took it over in the end – all the smart people decided they liked that clean look and took it for themselves,” she says, adding the same thing happened with modernist architecture. “It was supposed to a be a solution for low cost housing for the poor, but so quickly was changed to represent expensive housing that only the rich could afford.”
“For a brief period of time, it stood for what we wanted it to in Europe – I don’t think people in the US really ever got it,” she says.
“People thought I was less than an artist”
Later on in her career Solomon went back to education, studying history and philosophy and then architecture at the University of California, Berkeley. The learning she did here meant she “not only knew how to arrange words on a page, but understood what they meant too”.
Her books include Why? Why Not?, Utopia Myopia and Good Mourning California.
“The history department in particular helped me to learn to write and it was about simple words – none of that long-winded bullshit they talk in other subjects,” she says. “They liked clean, clear and minimal writing, and of course I was already familiar with those ideas.”
Now she prefers writing over design in most cases. Design, she admits, was a way to make money.
“If I hadn’t called myself a graphic designer, I wouldn’t have got paid,” Solomon says, adding that she learned how to charge from her architect friends. Even then, she felt there was a stigma attached to being creative for money.
“People thought I was less than because I was a graphic designer working for a living, rather than an artist earning nothing,” she says. “I think it’s some weird purity thing that still happens now.”
“I build my books now as I go, the same as I would have done back then”
For young designers she does Solomon does have some words of caution to heed, as someone who is sceptical of computers and the kind of design work they produce.
She fears the skills she learned with Hofmann and his meticulous studies of type are in danger of being lost for the next generation of designers.
Indeed, even though Solomon had previously taught classes at both Yale and Harvard in the 1960s, she says schools were largely uninterested in her teaching graphics classes years later because she refused to rely on computers.
“They couldn’t have been less interested,” she says.
Even with her own practice of writing books now, Solomon uses computers for the bare minimum. She says she types her text in “long skinny paragraphs” before printing the pages out.
“Then I cut out the blocks of text and use rubber cement to lay out the elements how I want,” she continues. “I build my books now as I go, the same as I would have done back then.”