The design world lost one of its leading lights on Monday August 18th when Deborah Sussman passed away at her Los Angeles home. She was 83. The cause was breast cancer, according to her husband and partner Paul Prejza.
Sussman was a pioneer in the field of environmental graphics – often called supergraphics – that leapt off the page and onto architecture. Her brightly colored “designs could turn buildings into urban events,” noted Joseph Giovannini in the obituary he penned for the New York Times. The urban event that garnered her wide recognition was the system of graphic signage that her firm designed in collaboration with Jerde Partnership for the 1984 Olympics set in Los Angeles. “With intensely colored banners, bunting, kiosks, streamers and graphic confetti, like free-standing stars,” writes Giovannini, “the designers created an instant landscape on light poles, lawns and sidewalks that gave pockets of the city the air of a carnival.” The colors she chose reflected the panoply of cultures represented in L.A. — magenta, yellow and vermillion from Mexico, saffron from Asia, and aqua “representing the Mediterranean spiritual climate of Los Angeles,” as she said in a 1986 L.A. Times interview. Although her Olympic designs were not universally lauded at the time, Frank Gehry, who collaborated with Sussman in the 1960s, praised their impact. “That’s what the Olympics were about — to put Los Angeles at the center of attention,” he told the L.A. Times. “Deborah put that into a visual.”
Before founding her own design practice in 1968, Sussman got her start working for Charles and Ray Eames from 1961-67. She marred Mr. Prejza, an architect in 1972, and started a firm with him, Sussman/Prejza in 1980. In addition to designing corporate identities for clients like Apple and Southern California Gas, she contributed graphics for the traffic systems at Disney World and created visual identities for the City of Santa Monica and Culver City, where she had a studio. In 2012, she designed signage for L.A.’s newly opened Grand Park featuring 16-foot tall posts that said “the park for all” in 26 languages.
Sussman’s work was recently included in California’s Designing Women at the Autry Museum and her Olympic Designs were prominently featured in Overdrive at the Getty. Deborah Sussman Loves Los Angeles, an exhibition focusing on her work from 1953 to 1984, was held at the Wuho Gallery at the end of last year. In his review of that show, the Los Angeles Times’ Architecture critic Christopher Hawthorne pinpoints what made her such a pivotal figure in Los Angeles’ design landscape: her expansive vision of design, and the longevity of her contributions: “Sussman’s work, in that sense, provided a bridge between two definitions of graphic design — one about text and the other about the city — as well as between two eras in L.A. design history.”
For a better look at just a fraction of her work, visit Curbed L.A.