“I’m conscious of screwing up the views”: Barbara Stauffacher Solomon on new work

As the supergraphics pioneer reveals her latest typographic work in St. Moritz, we discuss the rights and wrongs of supergraphics and public art with those involved.

It’s “a little word”, says supergraphics pioneer Barbara ‘Bobbie’ Stauffacher Solomon of her latest typographic commission, which sees the word ‘WELCOME’ writ large – 29 metres wide by 4 metres tall – at the entrance to the mountain resort of St. Moritz.

“It could just be ‘Welcome. I welcome you to supper’ – a little word you don’t usually see so big”, she says, but “we made it public art and we made it a big word”. “Seeing the alphabet so big, as a sculpture; as big as a building… I think that’s what was interesting for St. Moritz”, she adds.

Barbara Stauffacher Solomon photo by Chris Grunder. Dec 2020

The project was coordinated by St. Moritz’s Tourism’s Catherine Caratsch; Hans Ulrich Obrist, artistic director of Serpentine; Solomon’s Basel-based gallery, von Bartha; and Lady Elena Foster, curator, publisher of Ivory Press, chair of Serpentine Council and wife of architect Sir Norman Foster, and was also supported by the Thomas and Doris Ammann Foundation.

Obrist explains that for him and Serpentine, working with Solomon is the latest in a long-running programme called Protests against Forgetting, which gives belated dues to artists “who have worked for a long, long time and whose work hasn’t been recognised”, he explains.

Early on his career he received advice to speak to artists in different cities and ask them who their forebears were. “When I went to San Francisco for the first time”, he says, “all the artists were talking about this amazing artist ‘Bobbie’”.

Welcome by Barbara Stauffacher Solomon in St. Moritz © fotoswiss by Giancarlo Cattaneo. Drone images with permission from Airport Samedan

The Welcome project was initially planned for the water-side office of then Swiss consulate Benedikt Wechsler in Solomon’s native San Francisco. Solomon explains that his office entrance was “old and needed painting, and he wanted to have somebody who would paint it as a Swiss designer would”, Solomon explains. Seven rolling doors faced out to where “all the boats come by”, she said, so she got the idea “to write the big word ‘welcome,’ and that was all marvellous, except that it never happened”, she says. When Obrist heard about the project he was keen to make it happen in London, but it was eventually realised in St. Moritz thanks to the input of Elena Foster.

Obrist suggests that the project becomes a kind of “homecoming” for Solomon, whose story is intricately entwined with Switzerland in both personal and professional life. As she told Design Week in 2021, it is where she came as a young widow and mother of a young daughter after the premature death of her first husband Frank Stauffacher.

Switzerland provided her with the Modernist education and graphic design training under renowned Swiss designer Armin Hoffman at the Kunstgewerbeschule in Basel. Training in design allowed her to support herself and her daughter; she in turn took Helvetica to the US and combined it with American ideals of size and attitude to create supergraphics.

Barbara Stauffacher Solomon, her daughter Chloe, artist Luchita Hurtado and son Matt Mullican, March 1960, St. Moritz

Although well-represented in Switzerland by her gallery von Bartha, this is her most public work in the country, and as Julia Paas of von Bartha notes, the first large steel sculpture using her signature ‘BSS Alphabet’.

“Keep it simple and don’t screw with the letter spacing”

For this project, Solomon worked remotely; now a nonagerian, she is no longer able to travel. But she worked as she always does, lettering the project by hand, working on “8 ½ by 11 paper”, she says. “When I do a word, I’m a good Swiss designer; I look at the white spaces”. When it came to instructing the team to realise the project in St. Moritz, “all I said was keep it simple, keep it flush to the top and don’t screw with the letter spacing”, she says.

The BSS Alphabet is a stripped-down “geometrically minimal” Helvetica, she explains. First developed in 2019 when she was guest designer for Francis Ford Coppola’s Zoetrope magazine, its letterforms are reduced to a minimum: three rectangles horizontally make the ‘E’; vertically they form both the ‘W’ and ‘M’ of the word.

Welcome. Sketch by Barbara Stauffacher Solomon, 2021

The steel was sourced by local makers in the next-door village of Samedan, explains Caratsch, perhaps the easiest part of a project which was marked as “non-feasible” when she came to it, she says. That the project has finally come to be is “the fruit of a long collaboration and teamwork between many different partners”, she adds.

For the city, who paid for the work, the commission is a way of showing “an idea for St. Moritz to be not only this glamorous hangout for some happy few”, she explains, but to be seen as a place of “intellectual and cultural exchange”. It does have legacy in this area, with the region known for art from the 19th century Italian painter Segantini to the present range of contemporary galleries such as Hauser & Wirth and Vito Schnabel in the town;  a design legacy from two Winter Olympics (1928 and 1948) and the architecture built around it; and the nearby multidisciplinary art weekend the Engadin Art Talks (E.A.T), which for ten years has been looking to build the cultural significance of a region which has attracted “generations of thinkers, curators and artists” Obrist says – or as Swiss artist and designer Rolf Sachs adds, “those with ‘oomph’”.

A welcome sign against globalisation and localism

While  E.A.T’ guests are global – including Chinese artist Ai Weiwei, American Kenneth Roth of Human Rights Watch, and Nepalese-Tibetan musician Aïsha Devi – they, like Solomon also have surprising links to Switzerland. The general concept of a welcome sign, meanwhile, is particularly important of a time of both increased globalisation and the nationalism and localism that springs up against it, Obrist says: “Almost every city should have a welcome sign”.

Barbara Stauffacher Solomon, her daughter Chloe, artist Luchita Hurtado and son Matt Mullican, March 1960, near the Italian-Swiss border in the Val Bregaglia

But is it so simple? For Solomon, who has always cared about words in both form and meaning – trained on Modernist principles of ornament- and serif-free truth – sandwiched either side by training as an artist at the San Francisco Art Institute and later study of philosophy and linguistics at Berkeley on her return to the US – a typographic commission requires careful consideration.

She notes that a welcome is usually not extended equally to all, with those of different socio-economic backgrounds likely to have different preconceptions about a place such as St. Moritz than those to whom its luxury retail, hotels, and high-end galleries, more overtly cater. Meanwhile on the subject of ‘Hope’ the word to which she was originally asked to work with for E.A.T. she says, “In America, saying hope is like saying bullshit these days.” Explaining the highs and lows of Obama (“marvellous”) followed by the reaction of Trump (“not so marvellous”), she adds, “it’s not a very good subject for any American to talk about – it’ll come out of me all wrong because that’s what I think about hope”.

Nor has she backed down on her reservations about Sea Ranch, the project that made her name in the first place: ”I didn’t want the logo to be outside. I had all the supergraphics inside the building. When you’re trying to get a beautiful view of the Pacific Ocean, you should look at the Pacific Ocean, not an ad for Sea Ranch” she says.

Sea Ranch general store with supergraphic from Solomon

Solomon continues to be prolific in her work and is currently working towards a project for SFMOMA, as well as a potential exhibition around her graduate thesis Green Architecture and the Agrarian Garden, linked to the current vogue for living walls and skyscrapers.

The Welcome project, as super-sized as her others, wants to be visible – to make people see, and question the meaning of words as both art and design can do – but it still doesn’t want to dominate the landscape.  On the choice of white for its lettering, “well that was easy”, Solomon says. “I’m very against public art screwing up the view for the public. I wasn’t going to make it bright red stripes”.

Given the climate in St. Moritz, where “half the time it will be snowing”, she says, she’ll be happy to see her large white lettering both bold and true, but equally apt to “come and go”.

Images courtesy of the artist and von Bartha. Banner image copyright fotoswiss and Giancarlo Cattaneo. Welcome is currently on show in St. Moritz until April 2023.

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  • DMJ February 8, 2023 at 5:50 pm

    Somewhat concrete for me, even a chunk of brutalism.
    I’d rather see a handsome serif face.

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