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Making L.A.: Deborah Sussman Loves Los Angeles

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In Partnership with de LaBdesign east of La Brea (a.k.a. de LaB) is a Los Angeles-based nonprofit that celebrates and supports local creatives in their efforts to enlighten, improve and engage the city.

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.

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.

Photo: Laure Joliet

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.

Photo: Laure Joliet

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.

Photo: Laure Joliet

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."

Photo: Laure Joliet

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.

For the next edition of Making L.A.:

Saturday, February 22
12:00 pm to 3:00 pm


As part of the Making LA series, we'll take a peek at two of these recently redesigned markets. Since 2010, Public Matters has spearheaded the initiative Market Makeovers, high school student-led redesigns of neighborhood bodegas and grocery stores that focus on fresh, local foods and smart, active living. We'll meet up with Public Matters for a Super Snack Attack at two locations in Boyle Heights and East Los Angeles: Ramirez Meat Market (MAP: 3618 Folsom St, Los Angeles, CA 90063) and Euclid Market (MAP:545 Euclid Ave, Los Angeles, 90023). Join us to learn more about this innovative program and tour the revitalized markets with the high school students who made them a reality.

RSVP here!

We'll gather at Ramirez Meat Market at 12:00 p.m. to build your own fruit kabobs and hear about that market's transformation, then we'll walk as a group to Euclid Market for a second tour and cooking demonstration starting at 2:00 p.m. It's about a 35-minute walk between locations. You're also welcome to drive or bike. Or take the Gold Line: From the Indiana Station it's a 20-minute walk to both locations.

Read more about Market Makeovers:

Bringing Healthy Food Alternatives to Boyle Heights
Poor diet and lack of physical activity in Boyle Heights are made possible by barriers to health in the L.A. neighborhood.

Blurry by Design: Public Matters on Social Enterprise
Public Matters encourages productive outcomes from the meeting of two sets of otherwise contrary institutional logics: that of the market and of the social movement.

Proyecto MercadoFRESCO: Enlightenment & a Giant Taco
Proyecto MercadoFRESCO is trying to shift the cultural perception of the corner store from public health blight to community resource.

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Top Image: Photo by Laure Joliet

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