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Review: A timely look at L.A. designer Deborah Sussman

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Even after the windfall of the Getty's Pacific Standard Time Presents series of exhibitions in 2013, there's still a significant list of postwar Los Angeles architects and designers whose careers remain underexplored.

Among the most intriguing is the designer Deborah Sussman, whose work with Jon Jerde on the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics made a cameo last summer in "Overdrive," PSTP's anchor show at the Getty Museum.

Now Sussman, still working at age 82 at Sussman/Prejza, the firm she founded in 1980 with her husband, Paul Prejza, is getting a solo spotlight in "Deborah Sussman Loves Los Angeles," an exhibition running through Jan. 19 at Woodbury University's WUHO Gallery in Hollywood.

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It is a modest but charismatic show. And a timely one, since the role of female architects and designers and how they've been overshadowed by their male collaborators and clients has been much debated in recent months.

Sussman's body of work isn't as vast or significant as that of Denise Scott Brown, the architect excluded from the Pritzker Prize given her husband and partner  Robert Venturi in 1991, or Julia Morgan, who last month won the American Institute of Architects' Gold Medal in hyper-posthumous fashion, more than 55 years after her death.

But it is more than rich enough to sustain an exhibition like this one, filling the narrow WUHO Gallery with photographs, wall graphics and items under glass.

And in the end, the show's most meaningful themes aren't limited to gender or the nature of creative partnerships. They also include the way Sussman helped graphic design take on a bigger, quasi-architectural scale in the 1970s and 1980s and how the cultural identity of Los Angeles was forged in those decades.

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.

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It helps that the exhibition isn't meant as a comprehensive retrospective but instead zeros in on the first few decades of Sussman's career, from 1953 to 1984.

It begins with the work she did while employed in the Eames office, that famously multidisciplinary collective that practiced architecture, filmmaking, graphic design and furniture design. It next moves to her early solo output, including graphic design for the Hollywood Bowl and stage designs for a Rolling Stones tour.

And it concludes with the Olympics, a triumph not only for the bottom line but also for its interest in celebrating rather than trying to disguise the ephemeral, even beautifully fragile quality of the built environment in Los Angeles.

That means the exhibition — curated by Barbara Bestor, Catherine Gudis, Thomas Kracauer and Shannon Starkey — follows a natural narrative arc, even if Sussman herself might argue that audiences deserve to see her recent projects, which include graphics for Santa Monica's Big Blue Bus, alongside the older ones.

Prejza himself, trained as an architect and planner, might meanwhile suggest that his contributions are undervalued here. That is the paradox of the show, in fact: that it celebrates the work of a single designer to promote the value and power of collaboration.

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With their ad hoc, efficient and brightly colored flair, the cardboard pylons, scaffolding, signage and temporary structures that Sussman/Prejza and Jerde created for the 1984 Summer Games were arguably the ultimate triumph of the core Eamesian philosophy, even as they also marked the shift from modern design to postmodernism. They created an entire world from a shotgun marriage of ingenuity and joie de vivre.

Sussman's Olympic work also brought a new and bold kind of graphic design, now known as "supergraphics," to the attention of a worldwide audience. Because the budget for the 1984 Games was tight, Sussman/Prejza and Jerde relied on a hybrid of architecture and graphic design, using temporary structures that were bigger and more substantial than mere signs but also lighter and cheaper than actual buildings.

Not only did the approach play well on television but it also tied into a long heritage of design work in Los Angeles that eagerly explores the no-man's land between architecture and signage. What is the Hollywood sign, after all, but an advertisement aspiring to the scale and power of architecture? And what is an L.A. building specifically designed and illuminated to be seen from a moving car but a kind of permanent billboard?

By the 1980s, of course, the Eames office was no longer central to the L.A. design and architecture world. Attention was shifting to a group now known as the L.A. School: architects including Frank Gehry, Thom Mayne, Michael Rotondi, Eric Owen Moss and Franklin Israel.

Some of their work had a noticeably harder edge than that of the Eameses. But it shared an interest in workaday materials, in the singular vernacular of the L.A. streetscape, in lightness and informality.

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Sussman was a key link between the L.A. design world of the '50s and the one that emerged in the 1980s. She collaborated with Gehry as early as 1968 on designs for J. Magnin stores. With friends and collaborators including architects, designers and artists such as Judy Chicago, she was at the center of an effort to create what Bestor calls the "post-postwar" identity of Los Angeles.

The title of the Sussman show is itself an indication that she never went in for a darker or moodier take on the city. It is borrowed from the name of a 1972 BBC documentary on British architectural historian and critic Reyner Banham, who championed Los Angeles at a time when others in the architecture establishment were keen to dismiss it as an unplanned and polluted wasteland. Sussman herself designed a billboard, shown in the exhibition, for the documentary.

Banham's writing on L.A. gained momentum in large part from its sheer contrarian appeal: a London academic in thrall to 1970s Southern California?

Sussman, in these early years of her career, had a more vital and rooted role to play: With a diverse range of work, she helped build the Los Angeles design culture — freewheeling and lighthearted but deeply ambitious — that Banham and other outsiders would surprise themselves and their readers by coming to love.

christopher.hawthorne@latimes.com

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'Deborah Sussman Loves Los Angeles'

Where: Woodbury University's WUHO Gallery, 6518 Hollywood Blvd., Los Angeles

When: Open Thursdays through Saturdays, through Jan. 19

Cost: Free

Information: architecture.woodbury.edu/wuho

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