Few people in this world were as colorful, or as fascinating, as Deborah Sussman, who died of breast cancer on August 20. A protégé of Ray and Charles Eames (she joined their office in 1953), the environmental designer went on to make tremendous impacts in both design and architecture, in many ways changing the way the two fields interact. Last fall, Woodbury University’s WUHO gallery showcased her work in the show Deborah Sussman Loves Los Angeles! while the Art Institute of California–Inland Empire featured her work in Deborah Sussman: 60 + Years of Design. Sussman was putting together a book on her career before she died. AN West Coast Editor Sam Lubell sat down with Sussman earlier this year to talk about the exhibitions as well as her journey, from the Eames studio to study and work with some of the world’s leading designers in the U.S., Germany, Italy, India, Mexico, France, and elsewhere.
Courtesy Paul Redmond
Sam Lubell: How did you transfer all this amazing knowledge, all this experience, to your own practice, and your own style?
Deborah Sussman: You know, that’s a hard question to answer. I mean, I am very, as you can see, participatory. And I’m very eclectic and intuitive, whereas Paul [Prejza, her partner] is completely logical and linear. So, ideas—one of my gurus said to me, “Our ideas are like gossamer.” You know, you have to just travel with them. And I think what happens is all of this stuff gets inside you, and, with it, it enabled me to do what I did for the Olympics.
I had lived in New York—in Brooklyn, rather—and at the Bard College campus, and I had never lived anywhere else. And I came to Chicago, and I stayed with some friends of my parents’ and escaped as quickly as possible to the near North Side. And that experience of walking along Michigan Avenue, and crossing the river, the river on the left and the lake on the right, and all the lights and all those buildings—I used to dream about that, in color. And when the Olympics happened, when Jon [Jerde] started introducing me and everything, I dreamt the same dream in Chicago, and I dreamt it was the time of the Olympics, and it was almost like this memory of the sparkles in the sky, and the lights on the ground, and the body of water.
And that’s something that you actually were able to translate into a design? Or more, into a feeling?
I’d say both. Jon made all the introductions, and then it just took off like wildfire. It was almost like it was destiny. And everything that I had loved, noted, photographed, absorbed, people that were influential, in my travels around the world, they all found a place in the Olympics. For example, the colors… People wanted signs. People were saying, “where are the colors? Give me the colors, we need the colors!” So that was one of the first needs.
And Jon was much more cerebral in his approach. But it was just—sometimes, the chemistry. The chemistry between the architects and the graphic designers, and the construction firm, and it was like we were a team. We were doing our marathon. And you had to be very loose, and very, very flexible. And you had to be able to undertake challenges you had never even heard of before.
Do you think the influence of Eames played a strong part?
I think the confidence that I got from working on big things at the Eames Office, plus the things I had done in retail, helped. But also I sort of had a predilection for planes of color that hit or didn’t hit each other, and, you know, some of that was strengthened by my years at Eames. Certainly my sensibility in color was not just Ray, it was also Sandro Girardo, Alexander Girard, who was a huge influence on me. He was part of the Eames group. Charles, Ray, Sandro, and Sandro’s wife, Susan, we all traveled together, we went to Mexico together for Day of the Dead. And Sandro’s passion for folk art, and what he could do with it. What Sandro could do in one day using his head and his hands was more than most people could do in three months. Sandro was a huge influence on me, and I would also say that Mexico was… I just fell in love.
Do you want to talk about your interest in working closely with architects, and starting the creative process together?
Well, it varies. We recently did a project with Norman Foster, and that was a totally different kind of relationship. Some architects welcome input from others and can build on it. But those are very few. Most architects, now I’m not mentioning names, most architects would prefer to do everything. Not just by themselves, but by their own office. So that a stranger, like Sussman-Prejza, is not welcome even when the client wants us to do stuff. We have very good friends who are architects, and some of our dear friend architects prefer if we stay in the graphics box, which means usually signing, which has very little interest for me now. Place making is something else. Our name often is shown on the credit list below the plumbing contractor. Sometimes it says, “wayfinding,” when what we did was not limited to wayfinding by any stretch of the imagination.
Architects are not the only ones who have good ideas. So one would have to be specific to get to what I’m sort of groping at, but there is a group of architects who are not very famous but do a lot of work that we established a very happy relationship with early on. And we, in this case, if there’s somebody who’s a leader, and can say yes, and isn’t afraid of input from somebody outside the immediate family, then you get really, really great stuff happening.
You’re quite well known and respected in the architecture world. Do you think that you’ve blazed a trail for graphic design in architecture?
Well, I certainly was one of the people who did that… I was able to work on architecture, and work on an architectural scale, which probably was made possible by all those years at the Eames Office. And, you know, my first assignments were hardly glamorous. I mean, Standard Shoes is a discount shoe store. But it made history. Progressive Architecture did a story on me, I think it was in the late 60s. And they didn’t mention the architect. Bernard Zimmerman was losing his mind.
You changed what you and others in your field do.
When I was starting out, there was hardly anybody who was doing what I was doing. And now everybody is doing it.
Environmental graphics. I mean, things like the Joseph Magnin and Standard and, later, the projects for the Rouse Company, which weren’t in the show. Now everybody does it.
A lot of designers like color, but you bring it to another level. Has it just been that way for you, since you were born?
Well, I don’t remember that far back, but I would like to say that at some point in my journey I became very concerned that color be used to serve a purpose. The colors of the Olympics were used as celebratory colors around the Pacific Rim—you know Japan, stretching a little further to India, China—and especially Mexico since it is the closest, that was a reason why those colors were used. Even though they were done very quickly, and very intuitively. And I remember that there’s one picture in the collection that we took in Mexico after the Olympics, and it was fields of flowers in magenta and that strong, dark yellow, in Mexico. We shot that after. But it had been in our heads, it was in my head. And Sandro, with fabrics… He had a way of combining reds and oranges and magentas that are all—drool, drool, drool.
What is your secret for going through all these huge periods of change, but remaining relevant?
Well, you know, it’s all about people. And we’ve had some really great people come through the office, and come, and leave, and go someplace that pays them three or four times as much as we can, that’s happened. I won’t go into robbery, but there’s a firm that robs everybody, and they rob us whenever they can. Nevertheless, I welcome input. And when there is—when someone has particular abilities, they are allowed to use those abilities and affect the work. You have to have some fire in the belly. And I still have a lot of fire in my belly.
You’ve got multiple shows, and a book you’re working on. It’s a time to think about your impact on the city and your impact on other designers.
This whole experience with WUHO gave me an insight about what I’ve done in life. I never looked at the photographs that were selected for that wall all together as a group. And I have to say that the team—Tom Kracauer—he was so dedicated, and it reminded me so much of the way I used to be. You know, all-nighters. And then Barbara [Bestor] is touched with genius. You know, she and Cathy Gudis, she did all the writing, she made the final selection of what was in the vitrine, I believe, she did all the captions. Well, I mean, I gave a lot of material, but—I suddenly began to see myself and my work differently.
When I saw what Tom Kracauer was doing, which was so influenced by my work, as I was so influenced by Sandro Girard, I thought, there’s something there that I haven’t really paid attention to. And you know, there were people—I was coming out of the modernist era, it was still the modernist era. When I went to school in Chicago, Mies was teaching at the Institute of Design, and my best friend married one of his former students and staff from Chicago. So I knew what Mies was about, sort of, but this was another world, you know, this was my world—and my world is closer to all that stuff you see around here. But I was astounded at how much interest there was among young people as well as old people.
So it told you the influence, and what did it tell you about your work that you didn’t know before?
It told me how—it made me realize what a strong connection there was from one project to another, even though they don’t look the same. And I just thought it was awesome when I saw that wall, starting when I was in my early twenties and going up until I was around fifty. I realized: I did all of that? I mean, I had help with everything…People wanted to come and help. And I’ve had a little bit of that feeling for much of my life.
There’s this common thread, and it’s hard to define what that thread is, I guess, but there’s a thread.
Well, I think it’s basically sort of free—I think it’s freedom. Like Sandro Girard used to say, “Less”—was it Sandro who used to say, “Less is a bore”? But, you know, more can be more. Less can be less.