Artist, Designer and Founder of Sussman/Prejza
Deborah Sussman was a pioneer in the field of Environmental Graphic Design. Her contributions to the discipline have been internationally applauded, and have influenced generations of designers. Her passion for place-making and the marriage of graphics and the built environment, which Deborah coined “graphitecture”, led to extensive collaborations with planners, designers, architects and artists. Her design vision was informed by perceptive observation and rigorous documentation of communities and culture, which found its place each design of a project. Her work was populist and exuberant with an added special gift of embracing color.
Deborah was born in 1931 in Brooklyn New York and her parents were first generation Europeans from Warsaw and Belarus. Her father was a successful commercial artist and her mother was a linguist – speaking 3–4 languages fluently. Deborah’s parents where here greatest influence in developing her interest in the arts. In her youth in New York, Deborah attended classes at the Art Students league, visited Young Peoples Concerts at Carnegie Hall, edited and drew illustrations for the high school arts journal, participated in weekly high school radio broadcasts and visited the many museums and galleries in Manhattan. After her High School graduation, Deborah enrolled in the summer sessions at Black Mountain College, which offered a cutting edge curriculum in the Arts. She studied and worked with painter Frans Kline, musician John Cage, dancer Merce Cunningham and others. Deborah’s experiences inspired her decision to study painting and the performing arts at Bard College.
Deborah thrived in the liberal and open program at Bard College but quickly decided she would not be an actress. Exercising a Junior year option to study at a different school, one semester later, Deborah chose to stay at the Institute of Design in Chicago – the New Bauhaus; she had become infatuated with design. When Charles and Ray Eames visited the campus and presented their work, she determined that design would be her career. Describing that event later in life, she said: “the work of the Eames Office made the ordinary extraordinary”. In the summer of 1953, Deborah was chosen for a summer internship at the Eames Office in Venice, California – it lasted until the fall of 1958. A few of Deborah’s private Eames letters may be found in the Library of Congress.
In 1958, Deborah was awarded a Fulbright Scholarship to study at the Hochschule fur Gestaltung in Ulm, Germany. Touted as the “New Bauhaus” she found it rigid and dull after the freedom and excitement of the Eames Office and her college years. She spent most of the semester photographing vernacular architecture, signs and markets around Ulm and travelling to Pairs and Milan. In Milan, she worked several months for Studio Boggeri doing graphics, and in Paris she worked for the Galleries La Fayette department store, doing a significant body of work before returning to New York in 1961. She settled into an apartment in Manhattan and began doing freelance work, but after a few months, Charles Eames lured her back to Los Angeles to work on the Mathematica Exhibit for IBM. This began another phase of work, with a much larger Eames Office, which would last through 1967.
During more than a decade of working with the EAMES office, Deborah worked on seminal exhibits for IBM, the Government of India.True to Eames aesthetic of unconsciously using a discipline of playfulness. Deborah worked, and gained experience in, different disciplines: toy design, packaging, photography, film, print media, exhibits, signing, color and showroom design. She immersed herself in the aesthetic playfulness of the Eames multi-disciplinary style, and became a mature designer who could direct others and keep a project on track. She also became a sophisticated traveler, working in Mexico on the Day of the Dead film and spending over two months in India on the Nehru exhibit.
Deborah began her own business designing print pieces for the newly repositioned Los Angles County Museum of Art. She moved into her first studio on San Vicente Boulevard in West Los Angeles, which she shared with Frank Gehry and Gere Kavanaugh, and established herself as Deborah Sussman & Company. In 1968 she met her future husband/partner, Paul Prejza, an urban planner and architect and by 1980 the office was renamed Sussman/Prejza & Company and there, among a design and arts community that included very few women graphic designers, Deborah found her voice.
During their 40 plus years of working together Deborah Sussman and Paul Prejza led thefirm in designing over 340 notable projects, for a wide range of clients, which took them to the major cities of America’s Europe, Asia and the Middle East. Deborah led the firm in designing the look and graphics for the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics together with the Jerde Partnership. Many of the notable projects helmed by Deborah created a multi-dimensional graphic experience described as “urban poetry”. Along with the iconographic use of color in architecture and its close attention to the experience of public space, S/P projects garnered applause from critics and generated considerable influence among peers. During her career Deborah collaborated with some of the finest architects of our time, including Frank Gehry, Philip Johnson, Foster Partners, GGN, Olin, MRY, Barton Myers and SOM.
In many ways, Deborah’s DNA is in most of these projects. Deborah had a flair for color, detail, but she was also conceptual. Deborah was as comfortable and secure when she was designing a brochure as she was when she was coloring a fifty-story office building. No project was too big-nor to small.
Deborah was bright and sunny always fashionably dressed, with a quick wit, a sharp sense of humor. She would flash a smile that would light up a place with an infectious laugh that would fill a room. Deborah seemed ageless. A series of photos taken six weeks before she died, picture her as someone with twenty more years in her future. She was Sui generis – One of a kind. by Paul Prejza
Julia Morgan Icon Award Inaugural Honoree, 2013
Henry Award, Museum of California Design, 2012
Laureate, Art Directors Global Hall of Fame New York (ADC) 2012
Golden Arrow Award (SEGD), 2006
Design Legacy Medalist, American Institute of Graphic Arts (AIGA), 2004
Fellow, AIGA /LA (2002)
Doctor of Humane Letters, Bard College, 1998
First Woman to exhibit in New York’s School of Visual Arts’ “Master Series”, 1995
Fellow, Society of Environmental Graphic Design (SEGD), 1991
Honorary Member, American Institute of Architects (AIA), 1988
Elected Member, The Trusteeship, International Women’s Forum, 1987
Alliance Graphique Internationale (AGI), Elected Member, 1987
Fellow and Founder, AIGA/LA, 1983
American Center for Design Honorary Member
American Institute of Architects (AIA) Honorary Member
Fulbright Scholarship, Calcutta, India: 1975
Fulbright Scholarship, Ulm – Hochschule fUr Gestaltung, Germany: 1957-58
Institute of Design, Chicago: 1950-53
Bard College, New York (painting and acting): 1948-50
Summer, Black Mountain College (art and performance): Summer 1948