Fearless strokes of vermilion, turquoise, fuchsia and ochre flushed the visual identities of everything Deborah Sussman realized during her 60-plus years of creative output—from fashion brands to the 1984 Olympics—and both the entities she defined with her joyful strain of supergraphics and those of us who experienced it were transformed for the better for it.
A pioneer in environmental graphic design, Mrs. Sussman work has been particularly influential in defining the aesthetic lexicon of a modern Los Angeles, still rippling today throughout every neighborhood of this urban sprawl. So while Mrs. Sussman died to cancer in her West Hollywood home last week, August 19, at age 83, her legacy lives on in the very DNA of Angelenoes.
Mrs. Sussman was thinking pink and combining it with every pop of in the rainbow since her start in the Venice offices of Ray and Charles Eames. She became art director for the studio during her decade there, and it was during a 1957 trip that the contextualization of color combinations took hold. “I worked on the Eames film Day of the Dead. I went to Mexico and just fell in love with it,” she recalled. “We were all taking pictures. I took some of the pictures in the film, including the title page. For me, it was a discovery.”
Ongoing trips to Mexico and later India continued to color her direction as she set out on her own in 1968—most pointedly on what remains her marquee project, the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles (which also appeared to serve as strong influence on the 2012 Olympics in London!). Integrating typography into the environmental landscape—always by way of graphic hues—also became a signature.
“All the work I do in color is not arbitrary. It’s content-based,” said Mrs. Sussman, who met architect and urban planner Paul Prejza in 1972 and married him that year. They would eventually partner in their own practice, Sussman/Prejza & Co. “The colors I selected for the Olympics reflected the colors of celebration I’d seen on the Pacific Rim: Mexico, India, Japan. In India they have these giant structures made of bamboo that get burned up. The memory of those things and the color, and the fact that they were having a revival in so many ways, they were all selected for a reason. They weren’t selected just because they’re beautiful. That color combination expressed the qualities of the culture.”
“Disobedience” is another guiding principle in Mrs. Sussman’s opus, and here, too, she was among the first designers to convey that signs and graphics don’t have to be “obedient” to the architecture that supports them. “It was the idea that the graphic had a life of its own,” she said. “Each wall doesn’t have to be the same color or doesn’t even need to have the graphic conform to it. The graphic could float in front of it.”
Mrs. Sussman’s whopping embrace of color and impact on design, especially in terms of Los Angeles’ singularity, belied the Brooklyn-born designer’s Lilliputian size. At 5-foot-4, I felt as I was towering over her when we finally met last December, at the opening of a well-deserved retrospective at the WUHO Gallery in Hollywood. Her tiny, frail figure, however, was outshone by a smile (swathed in bright lipstick!) that drew us right into her company. Our mutual friend, the architect Barbara Bestor curated the exhibition, and thankfully lured A+R into partly underwriting it. Suffice it to say, with our #welovecolor M.O., Mrs. Sussman’s work continues to provide us a charge our imaginations.