Writing design

The writing on the wall

Barbara Stauffacher Solomon’s reputation was made at the Sea Ranch. A new exhibition shows why she is a legend of supergraphy.

By Zach Mortice

Photo by Nathan Keay.

Barbara Stauffacher Solomon forms space (or something close to it) with color. This type of alchemical transformation, she says, is the product of exacting and ruthless study rather than fanciful inspiration. As a graphic design student at the Basel School of Design, Solomon studied with Swiss modernist Armin Hofmann, peering at Helvetica under the microscope, cutting out unnecessary serifs, and building a bridge to a new world through typographic economy.

Photo by Iker Gil.

“Armin is in my head,” Solomon said. “Everything I do is like Armin looking over my shoulder, saying ‘prima’ if it’s okay.”

Beginning with his era-defining supergraphs at the Sea Ranch, the influential development master planned by Lawrence Halprin, Solomon’s career has been an exercise in understanding the ironclad rules of the International Style in weight and proportion, which were passed on to him by Hofmann, so that they could be artfully broken. At the Sea Ranch, his wall designs warped into blocks of color and near-psychedelic shapes that buzz with poise and restraint. There is a timelessness that is increasingly evident now that Solomon has been drawing for 70 years. His supergraphs are perhaps the most enduring examples of Bauhausian sensibility. “Either I break [the rules], or I don’t break them,” she says. “But I have them.”

Photo by Nathan Keay.

To There are exits an exhibition of his work curated by Graham Foundation director Sarah Herda, new site-specific supergraphs resonate and respond to each other through the gallery, brought into conversation by little more than Solomon’s intuition. Taking up residence in the foundation’s Madlener House, these residential-scale galleries, interrupted by fireplaces and wood-framed mantels, provide an idiosyncratic setting for supergraphs wishing to burst unhindered across the white walls.

Photo by Nathan Keay.

Salomon had never seen the Madlener House and was working from elevations and photos. “At first I looked at the molding and thought, ‘Oh, my God. What am I going to do with this?” she said. She wanted to keep the space, in her mind, as pure and abstract as possible. She was unlikely to ever come to visit, having been housebound after a fall a few years ago. The dark brown hardwood flooring was “just one line” in her designs, she says, because if she indicated the color, the designs would look “terrible”.

“I got it and slowed down, and I liked something to do during COVID-19,” she says.

Photo by Nathan Keay.

Solomon started these graphics on 8.5 by 11 inch sheets of paper and hired his daughter Nellie King Solomon, also an artist, to help install them. “She knows how to put my crummy little sketches all over a wall,” Solomon says. From her home in San Francisco, Solomon watched Chicago’s Heart & Bone stores paint black and vermilion on the gallery walls. “I knew it would be a real guess; just lucky if it looked good,” she said.

Photo by Nathan Keay.

There are exits is an extension of his work at the Sea Ranch. In California, Solomon’s supergraphs are often a geometric abstraction inserted into a modernist environment, warping across planes and wrapping around walls. In Chicago, typography is stretched and squished into geometric patterns that trade the busy intimacy of Sea Ranch for the formality and texture of Madlener. What is consistent between the two is how Solomon’s supergraphs transcend decorative motif and become a spatial experience.

Photo by Nathan Keay.

In the Chicago Salon, the supergraphs of the first floor galleries unfurl not just through the walls but across the rooms, creating an exuberant call and response from gallery to gallery. Abstract versions of the letters spelling out the show’s name melt typography into geometry: an “E” in the form of three chunky vermilion rectangles, an “S” with its stretched midsection, a fat “T” in the shape of a chimney to the side. to, the duel wings of an “X” that kiss precisely where two walls form a corner, its precision done with a crash. In the segmented, residential scale of the Graham Galleries, the hollow of an ‘S’ is interrupted by a threshold, picked up and repeated in the next room, adding layers of depth to what at first appears to be only painting on a wall.

Photo by Iker Gil.

The wooden framing of windows and mantels and the forced perspective through these spaces are as important as the painting. “Architecture,” says Solomon, “tells me what to do.” The material and spatial impositions “break the monotony and give me ideas that I would never have thought of”.

Several of Solomon’s books are available at the bookstore, including his 1989 book, Green architecture and agrarian garden, derived from her master’s thesis at the University of California, Berkeley and the time she spent designing landscapes with architect Ricardo Bofill. The book features lavish landscape drawings that often begin with a plan view but suddenly – and somehow subtly – transform into sectional views of architecture. Some of these same shifts in perspective are found in Exits exist.

Photo by Nathan Keay.

Perhaps influenced by Solomon, landscape designers use supergraphs to define space and delineate program with at least as much abandon. At the Superkilen Supercollage in Copenhagen – by Superflex and Topotek 1 – topographic track lines scribble texture on the asphalt, and tessellated polygons of red, pink and orange threaten to distort the ground plane.

After seven decades of design, only Solomon can tell if every lick of paint is an Armin Hofmann saying or an invitation to break the rules and go your own way. But that particular transgression was – and still is – his greatest triumph.

Photo by Nathan Keay.

There are exits runs until July 9; Admission is free, reservation required.