Deborah Sussman: Design Experience

Deborah Sussman, FSEGD, the diminutive powerhouse of environmental graphic design, died August 20 in Los Angeles after a battle with cancer. She was 83.

After beginning her career in the office of Charles and Ray Eames in the 1950s, Sussman went on to launch her own design firm in 1968. In 1980, she partnered with her husband, architect and urban planner Paul Prejza, in creating Sussman/Prejza & Co. Sussman was perhaps best known for her design of the bold, colorful supergraphics for the 1984 Summer Olympic Games in Los Angeles, but her passion for the marriage of graphics and the built environment made her a sought-after collaborator with architects, planners, and a blue-ribbon client list ranging from theme parks to airports and from retail stores to universities.

Apart from being one of the most brilliant and influential designers of her time, Sussman was herself a design experience, say friends and colleagues.

“Everything she did was about design,” says former SEGD CEO Leslie Gallery Dilworth, who met Sussman 42 years ago when she hired her to develop a vehicular wayfinding system for Philadelphia’s city center.

“To select a yogurt was a design experience. To arrange the jellies for breakfast was a design opportunity.” Dilworth recalls that Sussman kept a card file of what she wore to client meetings. “When I asked her why in the world she did that, she she said she never wanted to wear the same thing twice. She was well aware of her visual impact and how it added to the general aura of her reputation and her work.”

Wayne Hunt, FSEGD, her friend and competitor for more than 40 years, calls Sussman “a glowing star in the design galaxy.”

“In addition to the many obvious, accurate, and deserved comments about Deborah's indomitable spirit, groundbreaking work, and international influence, I offer this: She was probably the last of the iconic 'design as a way of life' superstars. She lived design 24/7/52—there was no other life. Her office, after hours, weekends, 'vacations,' friends, dinners—all one continuous design adventure.

“She lit up any meeting, encounter, or minor conversation. Dinner and conversation with her was a design experience; everything could and should be designed (perhaps by her!). She saw no divisions between design disciplines, or fine art for that matter. She preceded the term ‘multi-disciplined’ by 50 years.” 

Sussman was born in New York in 1931, and studied art and theater at Bard College before attending the Chicago Institute of Design. After the Eameses lectured there, her professors recommended her for a summer internship at their office in Venice, Calif. She spent four years at the Eames studio, leaving when she received a Fulbright Scholarship to study at the Hochshule für Gestaltung in Ulm, Germany. After working briefly in Milan and Paris, she returned to the Eames practice in 1961 and stayed there through 1967.

While the foundation for her later work was laid during the Eames years, she is best known for the body of work she built within her own design practice, says David Gibson, FSEGD, co-founder of Two Twelve. 

"The glorious body of work that is the true Deborah Sussman experience was undertaken at her own design practice. A devoted traveller and gifted scavenger, she scoured the world for images, ideas, and colors that she then wove through her work for municipalities, for developers, for architects, for institutions. She was a master of the grand gesture and also of the details. Her work sparkles, it delights, it's downright beautiful. Her design program for the fabled LA Olympics looks as fresh today as it was the moment she designed it over 30 years ago."

She was named SEGD Fellow in 1991, and received SEGD's Golden Arrow Award in 2006. She was named an AIGA Medalist in 2004 and won numerous design awards, honorary degrees, and other accolades for her life's work.

Robin Perkins, FSEGD, principle of Selbert Perkins Design, says Sussman was a role model for all women designers, starting her career at a time when there were few women in the field. Perkins saw Sussman at a design event just recently, “looking fabulous as usual with her signature style that only she could pull off.”

“To say she was a leader in the industry sounds so cliche. She WAS the industry. She laid the groundwork for every woman who now leads a design office that focuses on Environmental Graphic Design. She has inspired all of us to do better work, never settle, strive for and achieve excellence, and be a champion for great design around the world. “

Just a few years ago, Sussman came full circle when she lovingly co-curated and designed (with Andrew Byrom) Eames Words, an exhibit at the A+D Museum Los Angeles devoted to the couple whose work and lifestyle were such major influences on her own. In a video produced for the exhibit, and in an interview with SEGD’s eg magazine, she recalled how she would spend weekends at the Eameses home, where studio work and home life all blended together; there was no distinction.

“People knew about their work, but not about what it was like to be in their world,” she recalled. “Design was everything. It was like oxygen.”

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SEGD members and SEGD Fellows paid the following tributes to Deborah Sussman.

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Deborah and I started out together at the Institute of Design in Chicago in 1952. Deborah went West and got bolder and bolder as the years went by, until she became a well-deserved and colorful landmark.

Ivan Chermayeff, FSEGD, Chermayeff & Geismar & Haviv 

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Deborah was an inspiration to me, in her gutsy use of BOLD colors, simple forms, and in their architectural integration into the projects. S/P set the tone for the project architecture, which gave it a sense of place and a strong and unique brand. Her approach was unique to each project. I looked forward to seeing the next S/P project. We were honored to recommend her to our client in China and they designed a very special design for not only signage but also a sculptural fountain. The client was very pleased with her participation. Her approach to retail was a breath of fresh air. She will be sorely missed, but her inspiration to me and others in our field will be felt for a long time. We celebrate her life and her inspiration to our field.

Jan Lorenc, Lorenc+Yoo Design

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Recalling my experiences of Deborah is in some ways an easy task. Her spirit and her personality were as vivid as the colors and images she used throughout her decades-long career as an environmental graphic designer. A celebration of Deborah is as much a tribute to her life as it is her body of work. My last visit with Deborah was over dinner at Musso & Franks Grill, the famed Hollywood watering hole. Over a plate of sand dab fillets and with cocktail in han, Deborah shared her pungent thoughts about the contemporary LA design scene and her reflections on LA design in decades past. It was a classic Deborah evening, watching an LA icon conjure up past and present in a room that has witnessed so much Hollywood history.

Deborah Sussman had an amazinging long run. While the foundation of her career was laid during her stints in the office of Charles and Ray Eames, the glorious body of work that is the true Deborah Sussman experience was undertaken at her own design practice which she started in 1968. A devoted traveller and gifted scavenger, she scoured the world for images, ideas, and colors that she then wove through her work for municipalities, for developers, for architects, for institutions. She was a master of the grand gesture and also of the details. The work sparkles, it delights, it's downright beautiful, and there is so much of Deborah in the work. Her design program--the kit of parts--for the fabled LA Olympics looks as fresh today as it was the moment she designed it over 30 years ago.

When we honored Deborah as SEGD Fellow in 1991, she gave a presentation that raised a few eyebrows. It was a classic Deborah moment. Rather than present the usual review of her work and her office, she gave us a tour of her very own LA, the personal landmarks of her daily life. It was a beautiful window into the spectrum of her life and the things that sustain her, so much more interesting than a slide show of projects.

As a women forging a bold path in what can too often be a man's world, Deborah so often seemed supremely confident and crystal clear in her ideas and opinions. Once when we found ourselves in Miami Beach at the same time, I caught Deborah Sussman in a fleeting moment of uncertainty. I was lounging poolside with Deborah and her sister Janet at the Delano Hotel. Deborah was wearing a fantastic bathing suit, a feast of colors that only Deborah could conjure up. Suddenly across the pool deck there was a buzz. Giorgio Armani was arriving with his entourage. He was, of course, wearing simple black trunks. Deborah quickly caught wind of this new image at the pool and Janet and I had to restrain Deborah from running upstairs to put on her black suit; of course she had packed options. The woman was human; few can remain immune to the power of the Armani image, in this case in the flesh. But the Sussman image prevailed and we passed the rest of the afternoon with Deborah in her suit of many colors.

And so dear Deborah, I remember so much: the glasses, the socks, the beautiful typefaces, the rich colors, some amazing dresses, so much beautiful work, and your sparkling vivid presence.

David Gibson, FSEGD, Two Twelve

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Deborah was a fellow Fellow and and a fellow Olympian and I feel very fortunate to have shared precious moments with her.

Abrazos Deborah.

Lance Wyman, FSEGD, Lance Wyman Ltd.

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With the passing of our friends, mentors, colleagues, and fellow humans I am reminded of how sweet life is and how fleeting it can be. Deborah savored the full sweetness of life and embraced it with passion as if it were but a fleeting moment. It seems a lesson that we too frequently forget. It is hard to imagine our intimate little design community without her. 

In Deborah's own words in response to the passing of Massimo, "sometimes it is darker after the light went off, than before it came".

With fond memories,

David Vanden-Eynden, FSEGD, Calori & Vanden-Eynden / Design Consultants

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Deborah was the goddess of EGD, a true pioneer of our field, of graphic design, and of design in general.

She had great intelligence, spunk, creativity, and a huge stature in design. I’m so glad I got to know her—although not as well as our West Coast colleagues—and came to understand why she was so amazing. Assured, flamboyant, visionary, damn good designer—she had it all. And she was a lovely, warm, fun-loving person.

Deborah leaves very big shoes to fill (ironic, yes, given her petite size). She was a huge inspiration to all of us—especially women in EGD—and I will miss her greatly. But her passing is not in vain—let's all build on the rock-solid foundation she laid and rededicate ourselves to excellence in all aspects of design.

Paul, we send you our personal condolences for your loss. While our missing of Deborah cannot begin to match yours, know that we're thinking of you and everyone close to her.

Here's to Deborah, a great person and a great designer! Her legacy will long endure in our hearts and our work.

Chris Calori, FSEGD, Calori & Vanden-Eynden / Design Consultants

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Hearing about the passing of Deborah yesterday came as a shock. We were lucky enough to have seen her just last month at a design event. She was clear, funny, engaging, and quick with her criticism of the graphic design and layout of recent article about her in Los Angeles magazine!! She also looked fabulous as usual with her signature style that only she could pull off.

To say she was a leader in the industry sounds so cliche. She WAS the industry. She laid the groundwork for every woman who now leads a design office that focuses on Environmental Graphic Design. She has inspired all of us to do better work, never settle, strive for and achieve excellence and be a champion for great design around the world.

We have lost another great leader. It will be up to all of us to continue their legacy of which we are all beneficiaries.

Robin Perkins, FSEGD, Selbert Perkins Design

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 The Bauhaus believed that Design was Intelligence Made Visible-- Deborah was the embodiment of that insight.

Living in Boulder rather than in Los Angeles afforded few opportunities to get to know her as well as I would liked. She looked like my sister Alice. But like the tracery in a cloud chamber, much could be learned looking at where she had been and what she had done. Her work and theSussman/Prezja practice looked to break new ground. But there was real intent. That intent was to expand the reach and boundaries of what they could do, all the while inspiring all who looked on in wonder, admiration and yes, envy at times. We’d occasionally run into each other at SEGD events. Deborah was always gracious and inquisitive about what we were up to. As Wayne pointed out, as colleagues and competitors we couldn’t go into detail in those chats but the warmth and engagement projected at one from her outsize, expressive features showed that she relished the intersection.

Deborah was the graphic design DNA of the Eames Office for nearly 11 years, and I believe Ray saw her as a surrogate daughter, with all the benefits and baggage that implies. During her tenure there the style and look of the Office’s collateral materials, exhibitions, films and special projects were to a degree Ray’s “compositions" sung by Deborah’s inimitable versatile visual voice. Even in my time there, any research or spelunking in flat files would unearth some Sussman magic.

But in the end it was her thinking, combined with an herculean work ethic and an inimitable eye that propelled her to her Magnum Opus, The Los Angeles Olympics. The LA Olympics. What else needs to be said? Our world wasn’t the same after that. It would be hard to point to another Games that nailed the zeitgeist as brilliantly and evocatively as she and the team she led managed to do--and at a Brobdingnagian scale!
She was at the heart of the effort and along with others conducted the symphony of designers, artists, architects, landscape architects as no one else. But the Sussman hand and eye was all over the work.

Deborah believed in the power of Design. Her life, her career and dense, interwoven network of professional colleagues and collaborators (she brought up the game of everyone she worked with) grew out of that commitment to excellence.

Finally my heartfelt condolences go to Paul Prejza. I’d reckon it was Paul who over the years served as a partner in ideas while enabling Deborah to focus on what she did best—poke, prod, project, propose and finally project brilliant work out into the culture. Thank you, Paul. The love in her work must also be an expression of the love she had for you. I would like to believe that’s the kind of woman she was.

Henry Beer, FSEGD, Stantec, Inc.

______  I, too, hold a special place in my heart for Deborah. It was a treat to be able to see her a few years ago at the 2010 SEGD Conference in DC. I first met her in 1983 when I was working at the Design Arts Program at the National Endowment for the Arts. I had been a fan of hers since starting my design career, so when my job at the NEA asked me to assemble design panels, I didn't hesitate to invite my favorite designer, Deborah Sussman. She came several times and we became friends. A special memory is the day she gave me a private showing of the preliminary designs for the LA Olympics--which she referred to as a "kit of parts," a term that soon became EGD vernacular. Not long after that I became executive director of SEGD and coaxed her into becoming a member and invited her in those early years to do many things for SEGD, from writing and speaking to judging and donating to the auction--and she always gave enthusiastically of her time and genuinely cared about SEGD and its role in building the profession. Her contributions early on to SEGD helped spawn and grow both the organization and the profession. I stayed in touch with her after I moved to Maine, inviting her to speak here in Portland. I loved how irreverent and whimsical she was - and how every part of her being embodied design. She was an inspiring teacher, mentor, friend, and creative force. Her legacy will live for a long, long time to come.

Sarah Speare, FSEGD, Institute for Humane Education (former SEGD Executive Director)

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 To be Deborah's friend was exhilarating and exhausting.

We were friends for 42 years. We met by chance at a Women in Design conference at the University of Oregon when I was teaching at the University of Texas. She introduced me to graphic design and then to environmental graphics.

To select a yogurt was a design experience. To arrange the jellies for breakfast was a design opportunity. Going shopping for eyeglasses was beyond adequate description!!

She taught me about graphic design. And I learned enough to know never ever ever attempt it without a professional!! Many architects think they can do everything, which includes graphics. Not me. She put the fear of Deborah in me. I knew enough to know that I did not know nearly enough!!

And she introduced me to SEGD when it was first formed. In the 1980s, I hired Sussman/Prejza to develop the direction and attraction sign program for Philadelphia.
She taught me what a dingbat is!!

Deborah kept a card file on what she wore to every client meeting! For Deborah, she herself was a design experience. She was a true star.

Leslie Gallery Dilworth, former SEGD CEO

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 In addition to the many obvious, accurate and deserved comments about Deborah's indomitable spirit, ground-breaking work, and international influence, I offer this: She was probably the last of the iconic "design as a way of life" superstars. She lived design 24/7/52 --- there was no other life. Her office, after hours, weekends, "vacations," friends, dinners--all one continuous design adventure. She and Paul lived the design promise of Eames, Nelson, Bass, and the other icons of the mid 20th Century.

Her friends were the world's top architects and designers--she was a glowing star in a broad design galaxy. She lit up any meeting, encounter, or minor conversation. Dinner and conversation with her was a design experience--everything could and should be designed (perhaps by her!). She saw no divisions between design disciplines, or fine art for that matter. She preceded the term "multi-disciplined" by 50 years.

Deborah was small lady with big ideas. And she knew how to sell big ideas to a blue-ribbon client list. Deborah and her talented team often tried to solve bigger problems than the project brief--and she usually got away with it. She was tenacious and gracious at the same time. She did not take no for an answer, but did it with style and artful persuasion. All the while she was accessible, available, and engaged with all who asked--generous to a fault.

She said her work was the real star, but I think we know Deborah and her work were one. When we lose someone great, we always say it's the end of an era -- this time we mean it.

Wayne Hunt, FSEGD, Hunt Design

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Would you like to share memories about Deborah Sussman? Please email your tributes to [email protected].

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Tributes to Deborah from around the web.

New York Times Tribute

LA Times Tribute

Creative Reviews Tribute

Design Observers Tribute

Fastcodesign Tribute

Core77 Tribute

Designboom Tribute

 

 

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