Deborah Sussman

The designer painted the town red—and magenta and purple and yellow and teal—in 1984

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The 1984 Summer Olympics are the most aesthetically memorable Games of our generation: buildings constructed of scaffolding and tubes, “LA 84” banners hanging from light poles, a palette that burned bright. For the first time in its history Los Angeles told a cohesive visual story. And that story was largely written by architect Jon Jerde and designer Deborah Sussman. Entertainment lawyer and Los Angeles Olympic Organizing Committee general manager Harry Usher hired Jerde to reimagine L.A.’s landscape; Jerde brought on Sussman (and her urban planner husband, Paul Prejza). We asked Sussman, now 83, to share how it all came together so seamlessly.

We started with the best client in the world: Harry Usher. He was charismatic, handsome, intuitive, risk taking. One of the reasons why Harry was so interested and excited about bringing the design to the forefront was that the Games themselves were going to be less exciting because of the Russians not being here. I don’t think we would have designed it any differently had they been, but that gave Harry a heightened interest in the design.

Jon was a great strategist, and he met Harry and talked about the absurdity of trying to build a stadium—or anything—with just a couple of years and no money. Harry went along with Jon’s concept, which was to take existing facilities and adapt them to the needs of the Olympics. Where you wanted big structures, the idea was to use ordinary building scaffolding, and where there were intimate transactions with cashiers and tickets and so forth, that could be done in tents. So it was making use of the constraints in a brilliant way.

Sussman

Jon had met me and Paul, and he’d started to talk to us about the project. Our first assignment was to do only the signing plan for the UCLA Village, so the athletes wouldn’t get lost. Jon said, “Don’t even think about that. You dream, see the big picture,” and I did. I saw in my head this sky and the ground sprinkled with confetti, sprinkled with all this magical stuff that shimmered and expressed joy, excitement—expressed the goals of the Olympics. Jon invented this phrase for it: “An invasion of butterflies.”

Everybody was crying out for a color palette. I’m very intuitive, but when it comes to color I’m also very conceptual. I had a mania for collage, which was nourished in my years with Ray Eames and Alexander Girard. I pulled these colored papers out, and they turned out to be the very colors we used. They were the colors I had observed in areas of celebration along the Pacific Rim—Mexico, Japan, India, China—the colors of the Hispanic and Asian communities that impact Los Angeles. Had I never been at the Eames office, had I never known Girard, I don’t know what I would have done.

In the beginning the committee was on the UCLA campus, and then it moved to this building where SCI-Arc used to be. They wanted us designers to work in their headquarters, and Jon said, “No, we have to have our own space. We have to be free.” They rented a warehouse on 8th Street near downtown. It was all temporary, like the Olympics. It was fantastic. We were working just like an athletic team. The goal was further, higher, faster.

One day I was sketching. There was a picture of the hurdles and athletes jumping over them, and part of our mission was to identify everything that we possibly could as part of “LA 84.” So I’m sketching on the hurdles: “LA 84.” Harry came by and looked at what I had done and said, “This is going to be very useful to us.” It was bold, direct; that “LA 84” became the name, and everything it could be applied to, it was.

The opening ceremonies are a story all by itself and not very pretty. David Wolper was in charge. We had this design guide, and it had all the approved colors on it, and even though there was a red and blue, it had next to it “approve colors, disapprove relationship.” The “disapprove relationship” was red, white, and blue, but David did everything he could to make the ceremonies red, white, and blue, with Sam the Olympic Eagle and this fake rocket, and it couldn’t have been more corny and more different from everything else in the Olympics.

A lot of people left town. All my cultural friends went to Europe, and all the culture of Europe and Asia was right here. The Olympics definitely put L.A. on a map that it didn’t used to be on. L.A. was seen as big and white, with movie stars and not serious, and the Games made L.A. more substantial in the eyes of the world.

Some naysayers said, “Look, forget your dream—it’s all going to be trampled and destroyed on the first day.” Well, by the last day nothing had been destroyed. You do something really good for people and they will respect that. Now that’s not always the case, but it was the case with the Olympics.

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