Deborah Sussman, environmental designer who created the colorful identity for the Los Angeles 1984 Olympics, has died. She was a woman with style and personality as vivid as her work.
Sussman, designer of vivid environmental graphics who gained fame with the colorful identity for the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, started her Los Angeles career when she came to work in the office of Charles and Ray Eames beginning around 1953. In 1968 she formed her own firm and subsequently partnered with her husband Paul Prezja, forming Sussman/Prezja & Co (later renamed Sussman-Prejza) in 1980.
The firm produced branding, signage and environmental graphics for numerous clients but cut a wide swath in LA, most recently with the environmental graphics for Grand Park in downtown. Her firm designed branding for the City of Santa Monica and the Culver City bus system; earlier projects included retail environments for Joseph Magnin, a collaboration with Frank Gehry, a wild one week stage show for the Rolling Stones, and Standard Shoe store, circa 1970, Los Angeles.
But the project that was seen by millions of eyeballs was the design for the identity for the architectural landscape of the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles.
Working with architect Jon Jerde she created what was essentially a stage-set of existing buildings and temporary structures —inflatables, scaffolding, cardboard—dressed from a “kit-of-parts” of patterns and vivid colors — oranges, pinks and greens — to reflect the multi-cultures of the Pacific Rim. The effect, writes Alissa Walker, was a “huge visual impact with a light touch” and, relative to other Olympics, a light investment.
The success of the Olympics lay with the client, Harry Usher, a top aide to commissioner Peter Ueberroth in planning the games. “For any ambitious design project to succeed,” Sussman recently told the LA Times’ Christopher Hawthorne, you need “one person who supports good ideas and who has the power and the clout to say yes.”
In Stylepedia, authors Steven Heller and Louise Fili wrote that the graphical elements of that Olympics “epitomized a carnivalesque modernity;” they placed her work in the Pacific branch of the New Wave design movement.
Deborah Sussman was born in Brooklyn on May 26, 1931. According to wiki, “her father was a skilled commercial artist. She took classes at the Art Students League and attended summer school at Black Mountain College in 1948. She studied acting and painting at Bard College in New York. She then attended the Institute of Design in Chicago where she studied graphic design.
She came to LA to work for Charles and Ray as an office designer. She subsequently spent about 10 years with the Eameses; she became art director for the office, designing print materials, museum exhibits, films, and showrooms for furniture. Sussman designed instructions for the card construction game House of Cards and traveled to Mexico to document folk culture for the Eameses’ 1957 film Day of the Dead.”
“I was the lady writhing around in the floor of the automobile.”
In an interview with DnA (below) about Eames Words, the 2011 exhibition she co-curated for A+D Museum, she recalled her heady early days in LA. “In the ’50s and ’60s, things happened without a corporate plan. It was a brave new world. During that time one of the first happenings was by Claes Oldenberg and I was the lady writhing around in the floor of the automobile and if you ask me why I really can’t remember but these things were happening.” Always living in the present however, she added that in today’s pop-up urban culture, “a lot of things are happening now in the same way.”
In addition to the Eames Words exhibition, Sussman’s work was featured in the 2011 LACMA show Living In A Modern Way, part of Pacific Standard Time. She was among the 46 artists whose work was featured in the 2012 California’s Designing Women, curated by Bill Stern, executive director at the Museum of California Design. Sussman received an AIGA medal in 2004.
Last year, Sussman received her own retrospective, Deborah Sussman Loves Los Angeles, at Woodbury University’s WUHO Gallery in Hollywood. It was spearheaded by architect Barbara Bestor, who said about Sussman’s work, “It looks particularly fresh right now at a moment where designers and architects are re-visiting the post-postwar era and finding all sorts of inspiration in the explosions of color and supergraphics that Deborah and some of her kin brought to architecture and environments.”
Deborah Sussman was famously dramatic, always dressed — from standout eyeglasses down to avant-garde shoes — with a verve that matched her work. Her outsize presence belied her petite frame; DnA always found her wonderfully opinionated, telling stories or describing her work and passions in a sonorous voice edged with wit and accompanied by much operatic eye-rolling.
According to colleagues, Deborah Sussman went into decline about a month ago and passed in the evening of August 19. True to her indomitable spirit, she was busy up to her final days.
Photograph top left of Deborah Sussman, June 2014, by Jiro Schneider. Listen to Deborah talk about working in the Eames’ office below. Read Alissa Walker’s appreciation of Deborah Sussman, below, written last year, in anticipation of the “Deborah Sussman Loves Los Angeles” exhibition, and Christopher Hawthorne’s appreciation, written in response to that show. And send us your recollections of Deborah.
Deborah Sussman Loves LA
By Alissa Walker
When I was on the AIGA Los Angeles board, our meetings were always held at the offices of Sussman/Prejza, the design firm which I idolized due to their work on the 1984 Summer Olympics held in LA. I’d always hang back after our meetings were over, snooping around to look at the current work that was on the walls, and hoping to catch Deborah as she left for the night, if only to see what dazzling patterns she had managed to coordinate in her legendary outfits.
After one meeting, I noticed the parking lot was filled with signage of some sort. I employed my usual nosy line of questioning and Deborah revealed that they were signs from the Olympics, being moved from one storage space to another. I nearly fainted.
When I could breathe again, Deborah took me out to look at them, and I got giddy as I began recognizing the different ones from the photos I’d seen. I asked if I might possibly be able to buy a sign, but Deborah, in her extremely generous manner, looked at me over whatever brightly colored glasses she was wearing that day and said, “I think I should give you one.”
And that’s how we came to have one of the original “Refreshments” signs from the 1984 Olympics hanging over our bed. (Don’t worry, it’s very secure and not going to fall on our heads in the night).
Sussman/Prejza along with the Jerde Partnership designed one of the most important things to ever happen to Los Angeles. Olympic games are legendary for going over budget and out of control, sometimes leaving cities in worse economic and infrastructural shape than they were before. The brilliance of the 1984 Olympics was that organizers vowed to stay fiscally responsible, electing not to build monumental new stadiums, for example, and use almost all existing structures as venues. The branding elements were made from inexpensive materials—inflatables, scaffolding, cardboard—which carried a huge visual impact with a light touch. A foundation was established with the profits that continues to support local athletic programs. It remains the only financially successful Olympics in history.
And the colors. OH THE COLORS. With shades drawn from Pacific Rim cultures in the Americas and Asia, the palette was amazingly prescient for its time. Just looking at that hot coral color reminds me of a certain new iPhone…
The Olympics are of course not the only project that Deborah and her team worked on—she started her career working under Charles and Ray Eames and has completed projects all over the world—but her legacy is best seen through the work she did right here in LA, in the shops, parks, museums, and many public spaces that built this colorful, contemporary city.
And that’s why I’m so excited that Woodbury University is mounting an exhibition to bring Deborah’s work to life for the next generation of Angelenos. The organizers are currently running a Kickstarter to finance this worthy exhibition, and they’re about halfway to their goal with 15 days left. This exhibition is a must for design nerds. Or Olympic nerds. Or LA nerds. Whatever kind of nerd you are.
It’s not often that you can trace the visual impact of one person who made a city more beautiful. Los Angeles is a better place because of Deborah Sussman—and we’re so lucky to have her stories and her work in one place to celebrate her awesomeness. And of course I’m really excited to see what gorgeous getup she wears to the opening.
Please send us any thoughts or memories of Deborah.