WHY? WHY NOT?
Barbara Stauffacher Solomon
Fun Fog Press 2013
Barbara Stauffacher Solomon is a San Francisco-based artist, graphic and landscape designer, and writer. Now in her eighties, she’s written (and illustrated) a riveting memoir. Her openness about the life she led while she transformed into what she became makes for a “writer’s book.” Design figures in it, but life – a life that a novelist would kill for – keeps upstaging it.
At nineteen she married Frank Stauffacher—filmmaker and founder of the San Francisco Film Festival. She lost him to brain cancer nine years later. The memoir begins with Stauffacher Solomon, a widow at twenty-eight, arriving in Switzerland with her mother and a young daughter, Chloe. Encounters in San Francisco convinced her that designers were serious and artists were not, so she applied first to Zurich’s Kunstgewerbeschule and then to Basel’s. Zurich told her to come back in a year, but Basel’s Armin Hofmann and his wife, Dorli, took her in. Her studies at one of the leading schools of Swiss graphic design began:
Only a few miles away, French philosophers were writing and questioning everything visual, but Armin didn’t read those books, and neither did we. ...The first assignment was to paint an alphabet acceptable to his discerning eyes. For six months, we struggled with twenty-six capitals and twenty-six lower-case letters, straight lines and wiggles. ... Our design tools were minimal. Curved lines were drawn by eye. Intuition merged with geometry. ... I could sense each millimeter of paint. ... My only concern was for the weight of each line and space.
The opening chapter lights up her studies like Velazquez’s Infanta, but the wider world is still in the picture: a daughter to raise, a mother to propitiate and men who came courting. After immersing us in the school and its immediate aftermath, she turns to her own backstory. Chapter two reprises her San Francisco childhood, her training as a dancer, and her marriage to Frank and their time together as a luminary, bicoastal art-and-film-world couple in the heady 1950s. Then death appears, preceded by frailty, denial and bewilderment. Frank dies in his late thirties.
Stauffacher Solomon’s life as a designer, post-Basel, begins with chapter three—a firsthand account by a woman who took it all in. Returning to San Francisco, she set up shop as a graphic designer. Lawrence Halprin gave her a place to work and then pulled her into the Sea Ranch. Applying her Basel-honed alphabet to its walls, she invented supergraphics. Her pocket history brings the Sea Ranch team alive. Here’s Joseph Esherick:
He was the perfect architect to design Sea Ranch-style houses. A master of the laid-back, Northern-California reverse-snobbism style of architecture, he dressed in tweed jackets, frayed Brooks Brothers shirts, and old khakis. In the shelter of a tall black-green hedgerow, Joe designed a line of six wood-shingle houses with sod-roofs—homes Al hoped future architects would emulate.
Stauffacher Solomon judges that her work at the Sea Ranch was her best as a graphic designer. It drew immediate praise and coverage: spreads in Abitare and Life and the cover of Progressive Architecture. “If it doesn’t look right, you can just paint it out,” Life noted. When she finally visited the Sea Ranch in 2005, she found that in fact everything she’d done there had been painted over.
“It’s hard to hate hypocrisy and work as a designer,” she writes. “Design is the cover up, good manners for people anguished by the possibility of accidents.” Offered a plum job by Massimo Vignelli, she spent a week in New York, deciding, “Enough. I don’t want to do this anymore.” Back in San Francisco, she married Dan Solomon, an architect twelve years her junior.
Before and after their daughter Nellie was born, she studied history, philosophy and architecture at Berkeley, focusing on the question, “What do architects do?” Aware of the antagonism between architects and landscape architects, she started to draw “French trees planted in straight lines: it was French Formalism vs. English Naturalism; the Hundred Years War all over again.” Her drawings first interested Philippe Bonnafont, whose gallery was the epicenter of Bay Area post-regionalism, and were then exhibited at the Walker Art Center by Mildred Friedman. Soon after, Giancarlo Monacelli of Rizzoli offered to do a book-length version of her master’s thesis, “Notes on the Common Ground between Architecture and Landscape Architecture.” Green Architecture and the Agrarian Garden was under way.
She travelled, visiting Europe with her family to see examples of “common ground.” She won a Rome Prize. She wrote and drew in the midst of a marriage. “How’s your book?” a friend asked. “Read the walls,” she answered—the spreads were pinned up all over the house. At the end of the 1980s, her marriage ended and she started a second book, Good Mourning California. “I was mourning my marriage,” she writes, “but I tried not to let it show on the pages.” Instead, she and her daughter Nellie criss-crossed the state by car, doing the research.
Both books were finished, published and acclaimed, drawing the attention of a new set of collaborators, like Ricardo Bofill in Barcelona and the Paris horticulturist/landscape architect team of Louis Benech and Pascal Cribier. With them, she won a competition for I.M. Pei’s Pyramid site at the Louvre:
I flew into Manhattan for a meeting at his office. I.M. and I stood near the elevator waiting for Louis and Pascal. They arrived, and Pascal said, “The French Government doesn’t want an American woman on the winning French team.” Pei looked appalled. It was the 1990s. Women were supposed to demand their rights. But there was no right I could demand. I’d been paid.
Other competitions followed, including Battery Park City’s Vesey Park and the linear ribbon along San Francisco’s Embarcadero Promenade. Her experiences with these projects speak to the frustrations of the public process, yet she managed to design a version of Vesey Park that was exactly what she wanted: “a green rectangle of grass, like the Marina Green, simple and open.” Her unstated conclusion is that it doesn’t diminish its rightness or its integrity that it only exists on paper.
Stauffacher Solomon’s memoir is timely. In January 2012, Architect’s Journal editor Christine Murray put out a ground breaking issue on the situation of women architects in England, spurred by a hair-raising RIBA survey that showed how bad off they were compared to men. In March 2013, Sheryl Sandberg published her manifesto, Lean In; in June, the Pritzker Prize jury, chaired all too fittingly by an Englishman, Lord Palumbo, once again deprived Denise Scott-Brown of her share of Venturi & Scott-Brown’s prize.
In delivering his news, Lord Palumbo noted lamely that Scott Brown would be eligible for the Pritzker “in the future.” At least she’s always been in public view, whereas Stauffacher Solomon had slipped into relative obscurity until some Europeans drew attention to her pioneering work as a supergraphiste, sweeping away her male architect collaborators’ casual blurring of credit. Typical for her, she’s produced a companion volume to the memoir. UTOPIA MYOPIA collects thirty-six plays in précis form, each with an accompanying drawing. It’s as if she’s saying, “Here’s the concept; now write it. I don’t have the time.”
Like every good memoir, WHY? WHY NOT? leaves future readers with parting words. Hers go something like this: Lean in or lean out—I did both. Keep your eyes open. Take notes.