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Barbara Stauffacher Solomon, Visionary Artist Who Invented Supergraphics, Dies at 95

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Barbara Stauffacher Solomon, seen here surrounded by her designs. The artist and pioneer of supergraphics died at her home Tuesday night at age 95. (Courtesy Chris Grunder)

Barbara Stauffacher Solomon, a giant in the worlds of landscape architecture and graphic design who spearheaded the colorful supergraphics movement of the 1960s and ’70s, died last night at her home in San Francisco. She was 95.

According to her daughter, the Los Angeles-based artist Nellie King Solomon, Stauffacher Solomon had been in hospice care for some time, and had reached the point where she was no longer able to eat, drink or talk. “Her body expired,” Solomon said. “She had a huge life! There’s no tragedy.”

In spite of her declining health, Stauffacher Solomon was a prolific artist up until the very end. Recent projects include a series of drawings displayed on the walls above a red-painted staircase in the Inner Richmond, a 95-foot-long “WELCOME” sign installed on the retaining wall outside the train station in Moritz, Switzerland, and a large-scale, stripe-themed installation that currently occupies the entire second-floor lobby of SFMOMA.

“She died with Liquid Paper on her hands,” Solomon said. “She wrestled it with the nurses.”

Red and black stripes painted on white walls and ceilings of lobby space
Barbara Stauffacher Solomon, ‘Strips of Stripes’ at SFMOMA. (Don Ross)

Chris Grunder, a San Francisco artist who worked as Stauffacher Solomon’s studio assistant and informal caregiver for much of the past few years, said that he was inspired by her ability to overcome adversity — “reinventing herself five times over in 70-plus years,” he said.

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After her first husband, the filmmaker Frank Stauffacher, died, Stauffacher Solomon moved to Basel, Switzerland, to study graphic design and learn skills that she could use to support herself and her young child. She returned to San Francisco in the early ’60s to open her own graphic design firm.

Barbara Stauffacher Solomon in 1955.
Barbara Stauffacher Solomon in 1955. (Courtesy of BAMPFA)

Soon after, Stauffacher Solomon took on the design project that she will likely be remembered most for, at an experimental housing development known as Sea Ranch on the Sonoma coast. She designed the ram’s horn–inspired logo, as well as the bold, large-scale graphic elements that are painted inside several buildings at Sea Ranch, including, most famously, its athletic center. The new style of graphics and environmental architecture that she created came to be known as supergraphics — a design movement that blended “the rigor of Swiss modernism with the color and style of [Stauffacher Solomon’s] West Coast sensibility,” as KQED’s Sarah Hotchkiss described it in a 2018 profile of the artist.

The rams horns at the Sea Ranch Lodge as designed by artist Barbara Stauffacher Solomon. (Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

But Solomon asserted that the “hard-edged” supergraphics are only one part of her mother’s artistic legacy. “There was this whole schmaltzy side to her,” she said. She loved 1930s French music; she loved gardens and meadows; she spent years working primarily as a landscape architect. Some of Solomon’s favorite memories with her mother were of “breaking and entering” into historical gardens — experiences that she documented in her 1989 book, Green Architecture & the Agrarian Garden.

In more recent years, Stauffacher Solomon revisited the supergraphics style that she helped popularize, perhaps most notably for her recent SFMOMA atrium project. Joseph Becker, SFMOMA’s Associate Curator of Architecture and Design, said he had been collaborating with Stauffacher Solomon for years, describing her as “an incredible sparring partner and visionary who suffered no fools.”

Barbara Stauffacher Solomon with her daughter Nellie and granddaughter Fia. (Courtesy Nellie King Solomon)

“She overcame tremendous adversity in the early part of her career, developing her own graphic design practice in a world not hospitable to women setting out on their own and making a name for themselves,” Becker said. “One of the reasons was because she had an exacting vision and attitude. To work with someone like that, even though she was 95, her clarity was undeniable. She knew exactly what she wanted, saw all sides of the project.”

The museum currently has new Stauffacher Solomon work that it’s partnering with the City of San Francisco to present: a massive, 300-foot-long street paving project on Minna Street featuring a graphic pattern made of red boots as an homage to Minna Rae Simpson, the street’s supposed namesake.

“What an absolute San Francisco treasure,” Becker said of Stauffacher Solomon. “Hands down, one of the best.”

Barbara Stauffacher Solomon, going through some of her many files. (Courtesy Chris Grunder)

Grunder, who met Stauffacher Solomon in 2019, said he “clicked [with her] in a way I never clicked with any friend ever.” Working closely with her as her “accomplice” these past few years, he says what he learned most from her is that you “can have an absolutely wonderful life without trying to please everybody.”

“Truthfully, she was incredibly prickly to a lot of people, and incredibly sweet and devoted to others,” Grunder said.

In recent years, he said, what Stauffacher Solomon seemed proudest of were her books — many of them an eccentric mix of drawings, abstractions and some rhyming text. The one she’d just completed, See the Invisible, due to be released by Colpa Press later this year, focuses on a theme Grunder says Stauffacher Solomon was obsessed with: making things that are visible invisible — with how design can be almost entirely invisible.

Installation view of Barbara Stauffacher Solomon's 'Land(e)scape 2018' at BAMPFA.
Installation view of Barbara Stauffacher Solomon’s ‘Land(e)scape 2018’ at BAMPFA. (Johnna Arnold)

Grunder recalls a time when Stauffacher Solomon referred, offhandedly, to her signs on Market Street in San Francisco. “Maybe you’re confused,” Grunder remembers saying to her. When did she ever get commissioned to do an installation on Market Street? So, she sent him down to Market and 3rd and had him look: “There, there,” she told him.

As it turns out, Stauffacher Solomon had designed the actual street signs. “Ta-da,” she said, when he finally made the connection.

As SFMOMA’s Becker put it, “We’re surrounded by works by Bobbie even if we’re not aware of it,” using the name used by Stauffacher Solomon’s friends.

Barbara Stauffacher Solomon with her daughter Nellie, granddaughter Fia, and a display of her work. (Courtesy Nellie King Solomon)

Having spent much of the past decade fielding questions about legacy, Stauffacher Solomon was delighted to surprise one such inquisitor by saying she’d like to be remembered “for being a good mommy.” According to Solomon, her mother really did view herself as a mother and a grandmother first, even before her career, as someone who made the conscious choice to “build the next generation and have the best work of your life.”

“Because the art world and the design world are primarily a man’s world, they want you to choose between the two. I think that’s antiquated and ridiculous,” Solomon said. In that way, she believes that she and her own 16-year-old daughter, Fia — a budding singer-songwriter in her own right — are tasked with carrying on Stauffacher Solomon’s true legacy.

On Sunday, May 12, at 3 p.m., the family will hold a public memorial for Stauffacher Solomon at Crissy Field East Beach, in front of the changing rooms. “That was where she used to walk her dog Jake,” Solomon said. “The beach is where she hung out.”

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She hopes friends, colleagues and other well-wishers who knew her mother will come ready with stories to share to give her a proper send-off.

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