L.A. Woman

Deborah Sussman has been shaping the graphic landscape of LA since the 1960s. On the eve of an exhibition of her early work, she talks to Mark Sinclair about the city

Deborah Sussman is a designer very much at home with the bold, bright colours and expansive canvases of California. Originally from New York, via Chicago’s Institute of Design, she is – at 82 – still something of an adopted daughter of the American west coast. This month she is exhibiting some of her earliest commissions across two different galleries in Los Angeles, the city in which she has lived and worked since the early 1950s.

From her first job at the Eames studio in Venice, CA, to the large-scale graphics she has created with a range of architects over the years, including those for the LA Olympic Games in 1984, Sussman’s design approach has found a home in this special city. Of the new shows, Deborah Sussman Loves Los Angeles! at the Woodbury University gallery takes this relationship as its starting point and, for the first time, surveys her early work in California as it grew both in terms of scope and size.

The determination by the exhibition’s organisers to display Sussman’s formative projects, culminating with the Olympics work, resulted in a successful Kickstarter appeal to help fund it, but also told of a strong desire to see her design celebrated in this way. The gallery claims that the show will reveal “Sussman traversing office cultures, figures and collaborators of different generations, and types and styles of work”. In as much as she has made this cross-disciplinary role her own, initially the city itself was not the reason Sussman ended up there in 1953. It was simply where the Eames’ happened to be based.

As two of the most recognised designers in the world, earlier that year Charles and Ray Eames had visited Chicago’s Bauhaus-influenced ID school, to give a lecture. “People were hanging from the rafters,” Sussman recalls. “We all went crazy for it.” While there, Charles Eames asked the school’s Konrad Wachsmann if he could recommend a student who would be willing to come out and work for them that summer. “I found out about it by accident,” says Sussman. “Walking down the street one of the faculty said, ‘So you’re going to Eames?’ And I said, ‘What?!’ I packed up my belongings, went to New York to say goodbye to my parents and flew out to Los Angeles as quickly as I could.” Sussman was 22.

In an interview filmed for the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the designer has said that in studying theatre and art at New York’s Bard College (1948-1950) and designing stage sets while in Chicago, she was already developing an Eames-like approach. “There was such a compatibility between the aesthetic that I had unconsciously been using and the ‘disciplined’ playfulness of what the Eames’ were doing,” she recalled.

One of her first jobs at Eames was to design the instruction sheet for the studio’s illustrated House of Cards game. This meant “drawing the cards in perspective, and [the] configurations they could take,” she says in the LACMA film. While drawing was no problem for Sussman, this particular task required using the ruling pen – “the world’s cruellest tool,” she adds. “Charles could always psych out your Achilles heel, and expect you to succeed in spite of it.”

After four years with the Eames’, Sussman was awarded a Fulbright Scholarship to study at the Hochschule für Gestaltung in Ulm in Germany, also working briefly in Milan and Paris, before returning to the US studio in 1961. “When I went to Europe I became passionate about photographing the ‘art of the street’,” she says. “Everything that caught my eye – the architecture without architects. I think now that most of the things I photographed were made by hand, while the education of the Hochschule in Ulm was really quite the opposite.”

In the late 1960s, Sussman began to take on projects outside of the Eames office, remaining there until 1967. “The Los Angeles County Museum of Art had very adventurous curators,” she says. “The director came up with a programme to commission Los Angeles graphic designers to design catalogues for their exhibitions, sometimes the exhibitions themselves. And in the middle of that I went to India in 1965 as a member of the Eames Nehru exhibition team. When I came back I really began to do more work on my own, such as packaging for the LACMA museum store.”

It also became apparent that her skills were beginning to be highly sought after – particularly by architects. Sussman recalls that she was first asked to work on the interior of an advertising agency, and soon after was approached to produce large-scale graphics for a series of Standard Shoes stores. “Then I moved into a shared space with Frank Gehry and worked on several stores with him. One thing grew into another. Retail was very free.”

Archival photographs of a Standard Shoes store in 1970 go some way to document Sussman’s progressive vision two years into her own practice. Brightly coloured strips hang from the ceiling, while bold graphic shapes and patterns emerge from the wallspace. Displayed in shallow mirrored cabinets, the shoes appear to float freely in the room. “They loved it,” she says of the company’s reaction. “But then Los Angeles was very different from New York. It was not corporate-dominated in the same way. The physical cityscape was, in many ways, the opposite of what I had known in Chicago and New York. And it was much more free. There was a certain openness in the civic landscape and in people’s minds. There was a lot more sky, a lot more horizontality – a lot more space.”

While it is difficult to imagine the case today, within this unique climate Sussman says that it was the retail market that was “open to daring”. By 1980, the Sussman/ Prejza studio she formed with husband Paul Prejza was working on entire shopping centres for The Rouse Company. “At least in those years, and even after the Olympics, Rouse was very innovative, they weren’t just in it for the bottom line. So we worked on projects with their design team, who were mostly trained as architects, and went to different parts of the country. I got involved in the culture of the place where the shopping centres were going to be, which was reflected back into the work.”

Interviewed for the Autry National Centre’s exhibition, Designing Women 1896-1986, Sussman also defined her idea of “supergraphics”, the method that would form an important part of her work as an environmental graphic designer. “The idea of supergraphics was not that it was just ‘big’ but that it was ‘bigger’ than the architecture,” she said. “It didn’t have to fit in to prescribed spaces in a traditional way. It could have its own life and go beyond the ceiling, be cropped, be as though it had almost flown over the architecture. Much of the pioneering work was done by women in California.”

This point was echoed in Supergraphics, Adrian Shaughnessy’s 2010 book on the movement and its contemporary incarnations. In it Shaughnessy interviewed seven leading practitioners who had worked in the medium from the 1960s onwards, five of whom were women. Was there a reason that this niche area of design had been so dominated by female designers? “I don’t think there is one answer,” says Sussman. “It was a time when most architects were male but there were quite a number of females working in male-dominated offices. In the case of Barbara Stauffacher, Margaret Larsen and myself, who were all in California, there were architects and clients who were ‘open’ and who saw what we were doing as an asset.”

It was also a time for perceived doctrines to be challenged. “It’s still a very valid position that ‘Less can be more’,” says Sussman, “but other voices had come up, like Robert Venturi who had said ‘Less is a bore’ [in 1966]. And some people like me said ‘More is more! Sometimes less is even less!’ This is not to say that one is bad and the other is good, there is room for both. Fortunately, the Eames office and all my mentors had no allegiance to ‘isms’.”

By 1984, Sussman had taken the notion of absorbing cultural influences and also some of her more-is-more concerns to inform what would become perhaps her most celebrated project, completed by the Sussman/Prejza studio. Working in collaboration with architects The Jerde Partnership, the studio’s identity and environmental graphics system for the Los Angeles Olympics changed the way the look of an Olympic Games could be achieved on a number of levels. In a way, it needed to – after a massive overspend at the Montreal Games in 1976, followed by the lowest attended Games by country in Moscow in 1980, the US had an opportunity to rethink the Olympics.

“The government wasn’t paying for the Games, so since it was privately funded, the money had to be raised,” says Sussman. “There was neither the time nor the funding to build big monstrous buildings.” Instead, what Jon Jerde proposed was a ‘pop-up’ Olympic site with large gateways, towers and walls made from inexpensive scaffolding, repurposed tents, nylon banners and canopies.

While Peter Ueberroth was responsible for the overall organisation of the Games (and instigating the use of corporate sponsorship), it was the attorney Harry Usher, general manager of the Los Angeles Olympic Organising Committee, who proved to be the key figure in enabling Sussman/Prejza to fulfil their ideas. “Harry believed in us,” says Sussman. “He was intuitive, fearless, he could take risks and he could feel in his gut what was right. He backed us 100% of the way. And even when people in his committee said, ‘I hate those colours’, Harry never told us that. It’s a supreme example of where the client is at least half the story.”

In its refusal to put national colours at the forefront of the Games’ image, the palette of hot majenta, vermillion, aqua and chrome yellow would prove to be one of the most radical aspects of the Los Angeles Games. It was less about reflecting the fact that it was being held in the nation of red, white and blue; and more about the city itself, its mix of cultures and place in the world. The main influences were “the colours of the Pacific rim”, says Sussman, who adopted hues from Mexico and Japan along with the “technologies of celebration” unique to those cultures.

“To explain our ideas, I used pictures of those huge papier-mâché figures made in Asia and Mexico which go up in flames – and bamboo for the scaffolding,” Sussman recalls. “The cultures of the Pacific rim, especially Mexico and Japan were appropriate to the culture of Los Angeles; while India and its attitude towards ‘celebration’ was of enormous influence on what we did.”

Thirty years after working on the Olympics, the celebrations are now directed at Sussman’s own work. While the host city of 1984 has changed a lot in that time, for Sussman it seems that the “open-mindedness” and “psyche” of Los Angeles is what has enabled her to do things that might not have been possible anywhere else. And she is still doing them. With one exhibition under way and another just about to open, at the end of our conversation she mentions the text she is editing for the new catalogue. “I’ve got to get back on it,” she says.

Deborah Sussman Loves Los Angeles! is at WUHO, Woodbury University, LA until Jan 19. architecture.woodbury.edu/wuho

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