Deborah Sussman: Still Modern

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It has been over a generation, since Sussman/Prejza and The Jerde Partnership were co-design directors in creating the defining “look” of the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles. The designers created a “kit-of-parts” visual alphabet that was underscore by “hot graphic colors, iconic geometries, and ephemeral materials” fused together to transform the city of Los Angeles. Deborah Sussman, former Chicago Bauhaus student and Eames Office alumna, is still at it, fusing ideas, forms and colors. I wanted to learn what’s new in her oeuvre and the interview below tells it all.

After all these years, what still gives you the kick of design? Helping people grow. Learning from the young. Exploring new territory and conceptualising out of the box. Collaborating with people in real time and physical presence, much more than virtual, digital interchange. Smelling the coffee in the place where its made. Personally, writing poetry in a free-verse format: Developing ways in which images can be combined with the poems, such as the UCLA Extension cover (spring quarter 2010) which was the result of a UCLA Extension class on writing about art and about seeing! Frequently, a rather small project allows much more creative freedom and experimentation than the blockbusters. We are currently designing graphics, branding, and interiors for several performing arts centers around the country. Those moments when I can “fly” despite the enormous constraints of budget, program, client preferences – those are what keep me going. Face-to-face contact with decision makers.Do you inject more or less of yourself into current projects? Tough question. Quantitatively, less. It sort of happens in spurts, depending on depth of project, level of interchange between collaborators in-house and outside. Although I’m a general in the sense of experience, I’m a private when it comes to certain issues like color. SP’s leaders and staff play a louder role than they did in the ’70’s, ’80’s, and ’90’s. I’m working hard to keep my mouth shut when its of benefit to all. Technology is not my best friend and the staff is way, way ahead of me. Writing becomes a very creative outlet and exciting to create on the keypad. Even though I’m of a generation where educated girls never learned the typewriter in case it would lead to being secretaries. But everything always changes.

Over the past few years SP and I have been intensely engaged in a large campus branding program for SC Johnson, known for the famed Frank Lloyd Wright’s “Johnson’s Wax Buildings” in Racine, Wisconsin. SCJ supplies household products from Saran wrap to Windex to Pledge and many more, around the globe.

The SCJ people are wonderful to work with – a major reason for my involvement. We could agree to disagree. This relationship is somewhat like that of Eames and Herman Miller, IBM, and other corporations in the golden years of corporate creativity. And also the 1894 L.A. Olympics. Our relationship with SCJ is reminiscent of my/SP’s contact with the intuitive, risk taking entertainment lawyer Harry Usher, who trusted and believed in us so much that we performed at the height of our powers and the depth of our souls.

Sounds like the “golden years” but isn’t today’s client-designer relationship quite different? In my experience, today’s climate is extremely different than it used to be – not just technologically but in terms of forging new territory as a benefit to society. Bottom-line thinking versus exploration and innovation.How would you say your approach has changed over the years? I’ve become more conceptual: Ideas come faster and more easily. My experiences working with people and seeing so much of the world are a library that I draw on all the time, and continue to discover: The shadows cast on walls by the sun reflecting filigree lanterns in in Spain, Mexico, and San Antonio inspire iconography in the Performing Arts Center in San Antonio. Texas.

You were a student at the American Bauhaus. You worked with some of the great Moderns, like Charles and Ray Eames. Do you believe the tenets you learned are still valid? Yes!

Are you still a Modern? As long as you can remove the “ist”. I am eclectic, messy, intuitive, emotional. Although “modern” was and is part of the whole journey, actually, am not sure I ever was an “ist” of any kind. besides – less can be more and more can be less. But less can, actually, be less. And more can be more!

MY M.O. is like a guerilla, constantly showing up in unexpected places at strange times; versus a phalanx, which is a planned, controlled disciplined linear singular force. the world’s network of streets, avenues, highways – the language of the communal speaks to me in louder voices than theory or doctrine. So-called “folk” art has influenced my work profoundly. Context, for me, is a major determinant in designing. One size fits none. Which doesn’t mean that design solutions have to “fit in”; they just need to be educated. To accomplish the most effective result within a minimum of time and means is a worthwhile goal. That’s modern, isn’t it? But also eternal! I am still trying to figure out the path of least resistance.


Top: The SCJ design team in S/P designed merchandise from l to r: Michael Shaub, Deborah Sussman, and Hillary Jaye. Photography: Jim Simmons.

Below (from top): The signature of Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts is elegant and graceful. The form takes cues from the common 4/4 time signature as motioned by a conductor’s baton. The colors reference the citrus of Florida, where the project is located.

SCJ’s products and packaging from early to mid-1900s used bold, simple combinations of typography and color. The palette consisted of red, yellow and black. Therefore, this space honors this iconic graphic “language”: From walls and murals to shelving to new merchandise, the older sources are juxtaposed in fresh new ways. Photography: Jim Simmons.

This passage evokes the spirit of streets and paving in Fortaleza, Brazil. In Portuguese, the large letters spell “Carnauba of Brazil.” They are interpreted as though a street/sign painter covered the walls of buildings with colors of the region. Photography: Jim Simmons.

Part of the new merchandise developed included the design of shopping bags. The designs take cues from key branding elements. The palm frond of the Carnauba plant, Sikorsky airplane that flew to Brazil and the packing from the early to the mid-1900s. Photography: Jim Simmons.

The renovation of the AMC Cinema at Universal City Walk is defined by a mural of popcorn, the universal symbol for movie watching, raining from a soothing California sunset. In the words of Ron Meyer, Universal Studios President and COO, the new look is “Spectacular!” Photography: Fotoworks.

A wall of consistent typography morphs into photos of early vaudeville stars including a broad range of performers from violinists to musical blacksmiths & monkey troupes. The list runs horizontally along the wall in an even texture and creates images representing the standard 8-act Vaudeville bill. These walls subtly include several layers of information to be experienced over time. Photography: Anton Grassi.