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Sea Ranch’s world-famous supergraphics almost didn’t happen

After the architects went over budget, graphic designer Barbara Stauffacher Solomon saved the day with cost-effective paint

Colorful Sea Ranch Tennis Club supergraphics by Barbara Stauffacher Solomon
The influential Sea Ranch Tennis Club supergraphics by Barbara Stauffacher Solomon.
Jim Alinder/Princeton Architectural Press

Barbara Stauffacher Solomon was not only a pioneer in the male-dominated midcentury design world, she was also an innovator, essentially inventing the field of supergraphics. In a new interview—shot in Solomon’s stunning San Francisco home—the 89-year-old recounts the history of her most famous project, the Sea Ranch, where her colorful environmental graphics humanized and publicized a legendary work of architecture.

As a young widowed San Francisco artist intending to make a better living for her three-year-old daughter, Solomon traveled to Basel, Switzerland to study graphic design at the Basel Art Institute. Administrators scoffed at her as an untrained American, until design legend Armin Hofmann personally vouched for her talent, making her one of the first women exposed to the influential Swiss International Style.

When she returned to San Francisco, Solomon was referred to the Sea Ranch’s developers by landscape architect Lawrence Halprin (who was instrumental in boosting the design careers of many women in the industry). At first, she was hired only to create the Sea Ranch’s logo and brochure. In fact, as she reveals in the interview, the now-iconic supergraphics were one of the last elements she designed for the development.

The architects (Charles Moore, Donlyn Lyndon, William Turnbull, and Richard Whitaker) had gone way over budget designing the Sea Ranch’s swim and tennis club and they needed a cost-effective signage system. Enter Solomon’s bold, Helvetica-heavy solution, achieved in just a handful of days with just a few coats of paint. The project was published in Life magazine, and the rest was history, says Solomon. “Everybody copied it.”

Solomon’s work is found far beyond the windswept coast of California, however. Just last year, Curbed NY uncovered the fact that Solomon was behind one of the biggest wayfinding mysteries in the city's history: A swoopy, funky “subway” found below the 68th Street station.

In an interview with Curbed NY, Solomon notes that Hunter College commissioned her for the polar opposite of what she was celebrated for at Sea Ranch:

“[Franzen] didn’t want Helvetica,” Solomon remembers. “He wanted something more jazzy,” hence the signs we see now. (With a laugh, she says that the design team used to refer to it as “sleazy Helvetica.”)

Solomon’s interview is part of the Hall of Femmes project, which highlights the work of women in design through a series of books and events. As a fun bonus, check out the Hall of Femmes team installing one of Solomon’s supergraphics in Stockholm last year.