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Deborah Sussman

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Looking back over the life of designer Deborah Sussman

The death of legendary designer Deborah Sussman earlier this week has been keenly felt by the creative community at large. For someone who’d reached the very respectable age of 83, she was still ever-present in the public consciousness both for her continued influence over the visual landscape of Los Angeles and her seemingly boundless energy. She’d recently been the subject of a Kickstarter-funded retrospective at Woodbury University’s WUHO Gallery – proof if any were needed that she still had the ability to excite an audience – and as a result has been the subject of numerous magazine editorials over the past nine months.

Deborah was fortunate to have lived long enough to enjoy this critical acclaim. As a woman embarking upon a design career in the mid-1950s the odds were stacked against her, yet she managed to carve out a remarkable career early on in an industry dominated by men.

Some of that success can be attributed to her early work with Charles and Ray Eames. As a student at the Illinois Institute of Technology (or the “New Bauhaus” as it was affectionately known) she was mentored by the likes of Hugo Weber and Konrad Wachsmann, who recommended her to the Eames when they visited the school in 1953. She would later go on to champion the contribution Ray Eames made to the creative endeavours of the studio – a fact often overlooked by design scholars at the time.

But it wasn’t simply here relationship with the Eames that afforded her success, she was a unique talent in her own right, and in honour of that we’ve picked out some of the best moments from her career.

The Film Assistant

In true Eames style Deborah had numerous creative roles while under the employment of the studio; from model-maker and graphic designer to film assistant. Day of the Dead is taken from her early days at the studio and tells the story of the Mexican festival through beautifully-shot still images, surreal animated scenes and the gravelly soundtrack of Charles Eames’ narrative.

The Retail Revolution

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Standard Shoes 1970

By 1970 Deborah was running her own studio in LA and had started to take on large-scale commissions, collaborating with studio neighbour Frank Gehry. Together they worked on the interior of Standard Shoes where Deborah was granted free rein over the aesthetic. Her bold use of colour, pattern and abstract geometric forms was an instant hit with a client keen to push the boundaries of what a retail space could be.

The Olympic Commission

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Sussman/Prejza and the Jerde Partnership: Los Angeles Olympics 1984

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Sussman/Prejza and the Jerde Partnership: Los Angeles Olympics 1984

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Sussman/Prejza and the Jerde Partnership: Los Angeles Olympics 1984

By 1984 Deborah had built up a respected reputation for her studio and was working on a multitude of high-profile, public-facing projects. She’d designed brochures for the Hollywood Bowl, created exterior graphics for Joseph Magnin Stores and designed catalogues for the LA County Museum of Art. The Los Angeles Olympics came along and her bold super graphics seemed the obvious choice for an event designed to put LA on the global map. Though initially they were poorly received by some critics, Deborah’s designs for the Olympic branding remain some of the most respected to date, along with Otl Aicher’s work for the 1972 Munich Games and those for the 1968 Mexico Olympics.

The Retrospective Show

In late 2013 Woodbury University’s WUHO Gallery posted a fundraising page to Kickstarter asking for $15,000 to cover the costs of hanging a retrospective exhibition of Deborah’s work: “a month-long celebration that includes a panel discussion, gallery exhibition and poster publication.” The money was raised inside of a month and a renewed interest in Sussman’s work started up throughout the design community. In this interview from WUHO Gallery’s Kickstarter page you get a real sense of what an infectious personality she had and how passionate she was about design as a whole, even after a career that spanned over half a century.

The Contextual Obituary

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Deborah Sussman in 1965

Design lecturer Elizabeth Guffrey posted an obituary on Design Observer on 21 August that places Deborah’s career within the specific context of gender politics, examining the way she built a reputation for herself in an intensely male-dominated environment. It recalls her time managing the Olympic project that “thrust her into an uneasy leadership role." As she remembers, being in charge of some 150 designers — most of whom were men — required subtle but firm leadership. ““The male mafia” with whom she worked were dubious.” She was, Elizabeth asserts, “a pioneer in the fullest sense.”