At 95, Barbara Stauffacher Solomon Brings Her Signature ‘Supergraphics’ to SFMOMA

The multidisciplinary designer and architect renowned for her pioneering environmental graphics is still hard at work.

Nonagenarian Barbara Stauffacher Solomon, the multidisciplinary designer and architect renowned for her pioneering environmental graphics, is still hard at work. This fall, the walls and ceilings of Schwab Hall at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) will be covered in her signature “supergraphics”—large-scale colorful patterns and typography integrated into the architecture of their location.

Older woman wearing glasses smiles at camera, pigeon sits on her shoulder
Barbara Stauffacher Solomon in 2023. Photo by Nellie King Solomon, courtesy the artist and von Bartha

Consisting mainly of bold shapes and striking primary colors, Stauffacher Solomon’s supergraphics, which typically adorn entire interiors or even building exteriors, have made an impact not only in graphic design but also in fine art and architecture. In September, the second floor of SFMOMA will be home to Strips of Stripes, an installation full of red diagonal lines, black and white angled patterns and the letters “OK.”

“I’m saying it’s okay to come here,” said Stauffacher Solomon of her commission in a statement. “You’re here. It’s okay. Come in. Art welcomes you.”

Red and black horizontal line patterns, with black type reading "Strips" and "Stripes" of light throughout
Barbara Stauffacher Solomon’s Strips of Stripes, 2023. Courtesy the artist

Concurrently to Strips of Stripes, SFMOMA will host an exhibition examining the dialogue between Stauffacher Solomon’s work and that of Swiss modernist artist Paul Klee, featuring their respective drawings and complementary compositions. The show ties into a brochure Stauffacher Solomon designed for a Paul Klee exhibition in 1967, one of the many monthly program guides she designed for the museum between 1962 and 1972.

The designer’s work has been featured many times at SFMOMA, with shows ranging from the 1990 Visionary San Francisco to the 2019 Barbara Stauffacher Solomon: Nevermind Normal. Stauffacher Solomon “is an extraordinary example of an artist who is actively operating on both stages—she is a local legend, exerting a lasting influence on SFMOMA and the Bay Area, while having a profound impact on the international design field more broadly,” said Christopher Bedford, SFMOMA director, in a statement.

Locker room filled with colorful block graphics in red, blue and purple
Stauffacher Solomon’s designs at the Moonraker Athletic Center. Photo by Leslie Williamson

A San Francisco native, Stauffacher Solomon was a dancer before attending the California School of Fine Arts. She later studied graphic design with Armin Hoffman at the Institut Kunst in Basel in 1956, where she gained an appreciation for the Helvetica font that would become a key element of her supergraphics, before returning to San Francisco in the 1960s to run a graphic design practice.

Her supergraphics can be traced back to Sea Ranch

Her pioneering foray into supergraphics took place in the same decade when she helped design graphics for Sea Ranch, a utopian and experimental coastal development in Northern California helmed by landscape architect Lawrence Halprin. For her work on Sea Ranch, which included the design of its ram horn-shaped logo, Stauffacher Solomon received two awards from the American Institute of Architects.

Wooden building exterior with white graphic of rams horns decorating the side.
The rams horns at the Sea Ranch Lodge was designed by Barbara Stauffacher Solomon. Myung J. Chun/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

The designer also taught in the 1960s, holding positions at Yale, the University of Washington and Berkeley. She graduated from the latter university in 1981 after studying architecture, going on to work with architect Ricardo Bofill.

Her bona fides don’t end there. Stauffacher Solomon has also published several art books, including the 2013 titles Utopia Myopia and Why, Why Not? And she’s since developed her own alphabet typeface known as the “BSS alphabet,” a more minimal version of Helvetica. Recent exhibitions and commissions of the influential graphic designer’s work have been shown at the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive, LAX Art, the Graham Foundation and in St. Moritz, Switzerland.

At 95, Barbara Stauffacher Solomon Brings Her Signature ‘Supergraphics’ to SFMOMA