Deborah Sussman (1931–2014)

Deborah Sussman in “Deborah Sussman Loves Los Angeles” at WUHO Gallery, Woodbury University, Los Angeles, 2013. Photo courtesy Laure Joliet.

RECOLLECT, IF YOU WILL, the opening shot of the 1972 BBC documentary Reyner Banham Loves Los Angeles: a wondrous, fluffy, vibrant confection of a billboard that spells out the title of the film in cloud-like letters. The brilliance of this design is that it captures perfectly the giddy, celebratory effervescence of the city that spreads out in the billboard’s shadow, flying in the face of the clichéd image of Los Angeles as a polluted wasteland. It also perfectly expresses the joie de vivre, humor, and vibrancy of the designer herself, Deborah Sussman.

Magenta. Vermilion. Aqua. Chrome yellow. These are the colors that Sussman, trailblazing environmental graphic designer, used to describe the essence of her adopted city, Los Angeles. Those of us who came of age in the city in the 1970s and 1980s cannot fail to remember her larger-than-human-size neon letters spanning the exterior of the J. Magnin department stores or the mirrored, glitzy, zigzag edges of the interiors of Standard Shoes—both collaborations with Frank Gehry. These projects, too, perfectly express the exuberance and energy of their designer and of a city that embraced its billboards and wanted its architecture to be read in fast motion from the car window.

Sussman began her career in the office of Charles and Ray Eames, where she absorbed their genius for multidisciplinary practice, product design, and collaborative partnerships. This fierce woman moved beyond the strictures of high modernism with courage, forging an office that began in the 1960s to redefine graphic design. She crossed multiple boundaries, not only those of gender but also of discipline, with eye-catching work that was a mixture of graphic design, urban planning, architecture, interior architecture, and landscape design. In 1980, she and her husband, architect and planner Paul Prejza, incorporated Sussman/Prejza & Company. Together, in their numerous collaborations, they architecturalized graphic design, graphicized interiors, and colorized urban landscapes.

Sussman/Prejza’s design for the “look” of the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics introduced to the world’s attention the bold style now known as supergraphics. The lively implementation of ad hoc, graphically festooned scaffolding, brilliant cardboard sonotubes, and (affordable!) visually alphabetic bits were the parts of the Olympic ephemera that we Angelenos loved.

Architects are notoriously chromophobic, and Deborah’s work was all about color. When I was a young architect working at Barton Myers on the New Jersey Performing Arts Center, I remember seeing my (male) colleague’s eyes pop as Deborah brought her design proposals to the table. And oh, how her colors sang: loudly, resonantly, dazzlingly. With breathtaking verve, she married vivid African patterns with elegant, classic shapes and a multiplicity of fonts, textures, and materials. Unapologetically colorful, the work of Sussman/Prejza was always, always a refreshing antidote to the stodgy seriousness of modern architecture. Now, as the animated optimism and historically maligned maximalism of the postmodern is finding renewed appreciation, Deborah’s work is once again crossing boundaries, this time temporal.

In 2013, architect Barbara Bestor approached me as director of WUHO to host an exhibition of Deborah’s work. Fittingly titled “Deborah Sussman Loves Los Angeles,” the exhibition was co-curated by Barbara Bestor, Catherine Gudis, Thomas Kracauer, and Shannon Starkey. The show focused on Deborah’s work from 1953 to 1984 and celebrated the radiance of her style and her ability to appropriate the energy and luminosity of her adopted city.

Can words alone describe the electric vitality of Deborah’s life and work? Banham’s come close. Picture in your mind “that great moment of plastic, fluorescent spectacle, the sun going down in man-made splendor, that really is to all us lovers of Los Angeles the greatest exit line any city could ever have.” That full, loving Technicolor splendor is Deborah.

Ingalill Wahlroos-Ritter is an architect, associate dean of the Woodbury School of Architecture, and director of the WUHO gallery, which hosted a 2013 retrospective of Deborah Sussman’s work.