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How Deborah Sussman’s colorful graphics transformed Los Angeles and paved a path for women designers

Story by Carren Jao, photographs by Laure Joliet

It doesn’t take much to surmise that 82-year-old designer Deborah Sussman is a woman who knows how to have fun. Just one look at her color-blocked button-down shirt, patchwork pants, blue boa and mismatched footwear, and you come to see a little of the joie de vivre she brings to her projects.

If that’s not enough, a walk through Woodbury University’s WUHO Gallery’s exhibit, “Deborah Sussman Loves Los Angeles,” which showcased the graphic designer’s work from 1953 to 1984, offers further, unflinching proof.

On an unusually warm winter night (yes, even for Los Angeles), the narrow WUHO Gallery on Hollywood was filled with de Lab visitors, who sat, leaned or stood around Sussman and her husband Paul Prejza, campfire-style. They were rapt as the designer regaled the crowd with tantalizing stories behind many projects on show that day.

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Colorful and ebullient, Sussman’s work was a breath of fresh air, at a time when the architect’s palette became severely limited. “Architecture [at the time] was white, bland, and minimalist,” explained Prejza, “It was getting pretty boring.”

The designer’s style ran counter to that. With a myriad of projects such as packaging for LACMA, stage design for the Rolling Stones, and of course the 1984 Olympics, Sussman showed the good design doesn’t have to be beige.

Staying true to the designer’s spirit, the left side of the gallery was lined with bold, wall graphics. Six screens flashed images of the designer’s work, painstakingly culled from thousands of images, says co-curator Tom Kracauer.

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Under glass cases, a select few items from Sussman’s time at the Eames Office and beyond were on display. On view were instruction sheets for House of Cards, a poster and credits card for ‘Dia de los Muertos’ and a Herman Miller ad.

It even had an unobtrusive silver shoe hanger on display. “We invented the shoe hanger,” Sussman says with a hint of pride. “It seemed to be that if we hung [the shoes] in space, you’d see them better.” The New York Times ran a photo of Sussman’s hanger without any credit.

“Can you imagine?” Sussman comically laments, “It could have changed the course of my life.”

Uncredited work is a theme that would constantly come up in her stories. Sussman began her career in the 50s, a Mad Men-era when, unsurprisingly, much of the Eameses work was attributed to Charles.

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The designer seemed reconciled with the prevailing societal norms of the day, but begs her audience to consider the exhibition in wider context. Yes, the exhibit might have her name on it, but she says, “We did that. It’s not just me. You can’t do these big projects without other people.”

The big projects she meant were undoubtedly her work for the Rolling Stones, where she and her friends created a world of giant kites, Chinese signage and scaffolding in a remarkable ten days. What’s even more humorous is how they got paid: In stacks of $20 bills. Sussman still lights up at the thought of the concert. “That’s me with Mick Jagger!” She points excitedly at one of the screens, causing all of us in the audience to swivel our gaze toward the left wall.

Apparently, it was taken right after Jagger had scoured every seat at the concert venue, checking whether their design would impede audience views. Having finished the inspection, Jagger took out a joint and gave it to Sussman. She says with a sly smile, “That’s when this photo was taken.”

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No discussion of Sussman’s work would be complete without a mention of the 1984 Olympics, when Sussman/Prejza and Jerde Partnership collaborated on what is still the only financially successful Olympics in history. Dancing between the border of architecture and graphic design, the team created a wonderland made of cardboard, scaffolding and inflatables.

The 1984 Olympics’ unmistakable palette came to Sussman in a dream, whose style has always veered toward the instinctive. “I began to dream of a river that changed into a lake. Then I saw confetti and I realized the need for colors right away.” Culling her many photographs from research trips and life experiences, she pulled from the colors of the Pacific Rim—magenta, aqua, and vermillion. So was born the bold design, now known as supergraphics, that came to symbolize Los Angeles to those watching from around the world.

This was Los Angeles, bright, colorful and full of promise. That is still for many of us in the audience. Now, we know, in part, whom to thank.

See more photos from the event here.

Carren Jao covers design and architecture for The Los Angeles Times, The Architect’s Newspaper, KCET, KCRW and at her own blog, Carren’s Pitch.

Laure Joliet‘s photography has appeared in the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, and Remodelista. She sells her prints here and here.

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This is the third event in our Making LA series, which is made possible by support from the National Endowment for the Arts. Making LA consists of ten free programs hosted throughout the city between fall 2013 and fall 2014 that focus on designers and architects working closely with communities and civic leaders to improve Los Angeles. The series will culminate in the Making LA conference in fall 2014, a one-day event where creative leaders from across Los Angeles will share best practices and investigate new ways to make their burgeoning civic, architectural or design projects a reality. Want to sponsor an upcoming event? Learn more.