The colorful world of Deborah Sussman

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The legendary designer, fashion icon, lover of LA, and my hero Deborah Sussman has passed away at age 83. I’d known Deborah for over 10 years had written about her inspiring work manymany, many times over the years.

She was a gracious and generous person as well, which is why I came to have one of her designs hanging over my bed. It’s a concession stand sign from the 1984 Olympics. And it’s one of my most prized possessions.

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The last story I wrote about Deborah was an as-told-to about the 84 Olympics published in Los Angeles Magazine’s 80s issue this summer. As soon as I heard we had lost Deborah, I decided to publish the entire interview here, not only because she tells some fabulous stories about the Olympics, but also because the whole conversation reveals so much about Deborah herself. Just as I was typing it all in here, I could feel her personality leaping off the screen.

I spent several hours at Deborah’s home, which is filled with colorful trinkets gathered from around the world (and Eames loungers, of course). She insisted on pouring us tall flutes of cava at 4 in the afternoon. “It’s much better than champagne,” she said as she set the bottle on the counter, definitively. I took a sip and held up the flute to the light. She was right. The bubbles were tinier and sparklier than any effervescent drink I’d ever had. How had I never noticed this? Of course Deborah had.

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For those of us who were lucky enough to know her work—and her blue fur boas and her Rudi Gernreich dresses—you can see that it is that same attention to detail which drove all her creative decisions, from her adamant insistence to use native LA flowers for the athletes’ bouquets during the Olympics, to always selecting the perfect shade of hot pink.

When I wrote a story for New York Times about the opening of her retrospective, one thing she said still resonates with me:

“Isn’t this something?” Sussman remarked, her turquoise-lined eyes glittering behind purple-framed eyeglasses. “All my life, I was a hard worker, and I would add that much of the time, I loved what I was working on.”

I hope one day I can stand in a room looking back at my life like that and think the very same thing. I think she would really enjoy me sharing with you some of these never-before-heard tales about one of the things she loved working on the most.

Both photos of Deborah by the awesome and amazing Laure Joliet, who photographed the New York Times article I wrote about Deborah and our de LaB event at her show. 

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Interview with Deborah Sussman about the 1984 Olympics recorded at her home in West LA, May 2014

After she pours the cava, we begin by talking about the de LaB event I organized as part of her show at the WUHO Gallery…

AW: I did record a little bit of when we did the event at the gallery, so I do have a few things that you were saying that night, which was fun.

DS: You know, all of us who were part of putting it together, we were all drunk. I think it was mainly because Barbara [Bestor] invited us to Musso’s and we were all having martinis, and there were some people there that didn’t really drink who were at our table. The rest of us got smashed.

AW: That’s how it should be. You were celebrating!

So, I’m going to take you back to like five different moments we can use to tell this story, and the first one is when you received the call, when you found out that you were being tapped to work on this project.

DS: Well, it started not with a bang but a whimper, because we had thought that we were appropriate to work on the Olympics. However, before that all happened they had told us—I don’t know how much detail to go into—that it was all given to John Follis and Robert Miles Runyan. Robert Miles Runyan did the “Stars in Motion,” and then they were going to give all of the environmental graphics to John Follis, who was older than me and he’d been a mentor mainly in terms of how you do environmental graphics, and what are the steps, and what’s the fee and constraints. He was a mentor that way, and he had a name as a designer, and he was part of the then-old boys club, of which I was not.

AW: And how old were you at the time?

DS: Well, I was born in ‘31 and we’re talking about ‘82, ‘83, so I was 51-ish. And then along came Jon Jerde. Jon was a great strategist, and we started with the best client in the world, Harry Usher. He was an entertainment lawyer; he was charismatic, handsome, intuitive risk taking, charming, and Jon had met Harry Usher and talked about the impossibility of building anything and the absurdity of trying to build a stadium or anything with just a couple of years and no money.

And Harry went along with Jon’s concept. That was to take existing facilities and adapt them for the needs of the Olympics, so where you wanted big structures, the idea was use ordinary building scaffolding, and where there were intimate transactions with cashiers and tickets and so forth, that could be done in tents rather than in solid buildings.  And so it was making use of the constraints in a very brilliant way.

And so Jon’s office was working on ideas like for—I think in the beginning it might have been, well, I’ll have to remember the sequence, but anyway the idea of using bar mitzvah tents and tweaking them, and the building scaffolding, and chain link fences, fencing, because everybody was all freaked about safety.

So there were all these more or less disregarded materials used for other purposes that were temporary, and the Olympics is a temporary event. So Jon came up with the strategy—it wasn’t even adaptive reuse; it was using materials that were meant for one purpose for another purpose, so Harry loved the idea.

While that was happening I had been told, of course we probably called this guy, Dan Stuart, and he said well, thanks for your call but we’ve given everything to John Follis and Robert Miles Runyan. Well, that combo didn’t sit well with Harry Usher. Jon was looking at it in a more or less logical somewhat conventional way.  Jon had met us, and me, and he’d already started to talk to us about—or maybe we were already working on Horton Plaza—so we finally got an assignment and the first assignment was only to do the signing plan for the UCLA Village on the field, so the athletes shouldn’t get lost. And Jon said to me, don’t even think about that. You dream, dream, see the big picture, and I did.

Somehow I saw in my head this sky and the ground sprinkled like confetti, sprinkled with all magical stuff that shimmered and that expressed joy, excitement, you know, expressed the goals of the Olympics. I have this thing in my head, and it came out. First of all, everybody was crying for a color palette, we need a color palette, and John Follis had already started a color palette but it was very sort of academic and it certainly didn’t have magenta and those crazy colors. He just thought there should be bright colors in the foreground, I think it was, and Mediterranean colors in the background.

Well, when I involve myself with color it’s conceptual. I’m very intuitive, however, but when it comes to color I’m also very conceptual. I don’t just choose colors I like. I choose colors that are appropriate for the program at hand. So I went to the paper drawers – this is so long ago, can you imagine? I’m talking about early ‘83. Nobody used computers. We had paper drawers and we cut up paper, my favorite activity, cut up paper, and I had a mania for collage which was nourished in my years with Ray and with Sandro Girard. And so I pulled these colored papers out of the drawer and they turned out to be the very colors that we used.

AW: And you said they were papers you’d collected?

DS: Well, mostly those papers were solid colored papers, but I also have a paper collection of rarer papers, but that’s how we did color. So I pulled out these colors and I began to play with them, and they were the colors I had observed in celebration and areas of celebration along the Pacific Rim, Mexico, Japan, India a little bit further away, China – the colors basically of the Hispanic communities that impact Los Angeles, and the Asian community.

We have a vast collection of photographs of Mexico, India, Japan – that’s just FYI. Once, when the Olympics were over, we were invited to a conference in Mexico and we went to Mexico and Paul took pictures of fields of flowers, magenta mainly, that were in the Olympic colors, after we had done. So, had I never been at the Eames Office, had I never known Alexander Girard, known as Sandro, I don’t know what I would have done, but nobody else in the world ever would either.

While it was going on, there was [Richard] Koshalek and the head of CalArts. Koshalek was at MOCA and—it’ll come to me—and Koshalek came around while we were working and he said it’s going to get the world’s applause, and it did. But he said that while we were working in this big warehouse.

AW: That’s right. Tell me how you worked, when you had the team assembled.

DS: Well, Robert Fitzpatrick is the name of the head of CalArts who came along and said, he saw what we were designing and he said, I want something of that on every one of my forty-eight, whatever it was, arts venues, so we did that, too.

So in the beginning, the committee was on the UCLA campus, and then it moved to this building where SCI-Arc used to be. Anyway, they wanted us designers to come and work in their headquarters and Jon said no, we have to have our own space. We have to be free. So they rented a warehouse on Sixth Street near downtown. No, it was on Eighth Street.

AW: So, on the other side of the 110 from downtown?

DS: I think it may have been just this side of it. But it was this big space, and I’ve got lots of stories about that but I don’t want to tell anything that’s going to be bad for somebody. So what we had was sawhorses, and it was all temporary, like the Olympics. And Jon rightly strategized for all the Olympic design activity to have them under that one roof. And it was fantastic, because I could walk around, I mean there was a whole group of graphic designers and architects and industrial designers. And we at the peak numbered 150, but in the beginning it was just a few of us rattling around. And then we hired more and more people, and nobody had a budget, nobody knew how much it was going to cost, but we got paid.

So, that’s what happened, and we gradually, I mean I have pictures of me pointing at some presentation board, you know, so people came and worked there. It was in the open, so that the leaders could see what people were doing.  And everybody had goodwill. We were working just like an athletic team. The goal was further, higher, faster, and that’s how we felt. And our group grew and grew, and it finally got organized into teams of people that would make sure that the stuff that was built and in rolls and everything came to Eighth Street and went out to the right venue on the right truck.

Designers were doing this, not just designing, and that was one of the things that was so extraordinary and so fascinating, that people kind of—there were leaders of different components of what needed to be done, and there were people doing it, and we were all living under the same roof.

AW: And just the fact that everything was manufactured here, everything was being produced, it was all local.

DS: Well, it was. At one point the committee said we’ve got all our sponsors lined up now. That was Peter Ueberroth’s outreach program, and money is no object. But by then it was so late in the game, and almost every supplier west of the Mississippi was working on the L.A. Olympics.

I’ll tell you another funny thing. When we were in Eighth Street, maybe there was a conference room area, maybe not, but we put up this huge, huge piece of photo paper, floor to ceiling, and it was going to be the outline and the schedule and the spreadsheet for everything. Well, we got as far as the first week, and then nobody ever filled it out. Nobody knew what to write. We just did, we did it, and we made it, and we got paid. Could that ever happen now? I doubt it. I don’t know, maybe.

AW: What was one of the moments where you were challenged, and I’m sure there were many, but when you were kind of maybe scared that it wasn’t going to be pulled off, or the drama moment.

DS: There were mistakes. I did a boo-boo. But before I forget, I just wanted to mention to you, and I don’t know if this should be on the record or off. This should be off the record.

She tells me something off the record.

DS: Sometimes you get so passionate about every aspect of what you’re doing, at least I do, I get so emotionally involved and I want everything to be just right, and exactly just right, and things were coming along very well. So, there was a design that was supposed to be attached to the walkway to a bridge, above the walkway at the UCLA campus that separated the field from the village and the buildings on the left.  It was the major walkway and there was this bridge, and the bridge had chain link fence on it. And so designers were making this beautiful mural that would have to be sewn or held together out of the different colors of nylon. And it was such a beautiful design.

So I went there. It was going up. It was in the evening, and the colors looked glorious, but all the pieces of nylon, the edges were crooked and sagging and I made them take it down. And I was saying to one of my lieutenants; let’s just make it out of board so it’ll be straight. And the awesome shots of it, unfinished in the nylon, like stained glass, glorious colors coming through, and I made them take it down. Isn’t that awful? Awful, but that’s in the fever, I was having a kind of fever.

AW: Were you actually out there going to every site and looking at things?

DS: No, there were too many sites too simultaneous, so we had teams going to different sites. And Paul and I and Jon decided that the sites that were the most feasible for us to affect, and will be the most seen, were the ones that made our core group’s attention, like the stages at UCLA Village and USC and the USC Village in UCLA, and swimming venue.

And everybody was great. Everybody was great, except there’s always somebody, one or two people, you give them 13 or 14 colors and that’s not enough, they have to get some more colors of their own. That happened very briefly and not very seriously.

AW: So as you’re getting closer to the time and you have so much less time than Olympics now, like it’s crazy how much more time they get to do things.

DS: Oh, they did before, too. Other countries had like ten years.

AW: So why was the time so limited for L.A.? They didn’t have the money?

DS: Maybe Paul remembers. I think it’s partly because it wasn’t going to be handled by the feds. It wasn’t getting any government money, so that means all the money had to be raised, but the work had to be done while the money was being raised, and that’s why everything was on the cheap, on the cheap, on the cheap, and at the end they said you can spend any money you want, and it was too late.

AW: Did you ever get to take advantage of that part of it, maybe for the opening ceremonies?

DS: The opening ceremonies, oh, the ceremonies is a story all by itself, and it’s not very pretty. David Wolper was in charge of ceremonies, and he did everything he could to ignore what we were doing. 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 Wolper did everything he could to make the ceremonies red, white and blue with that Sam the Eagle and this fake rocket, and it couldn’t have been more corny and more different from everything else in the Olympics.

AW: But were you behind when everybody held up those—

DS: No. That’s a classic staging trick. We were not involved in that, and I don’t even remember whether David made the colors red, white and blue. There’s a picture of us all looking at the coliseum in the Design Quarterly.

AW: Okay, so there was that tension I guess between the red, white and blue.

DS: Well, that is the only instance that I can remember. Sam the Eagle was a fait acoompli long before we were hired.

AW: Do you remember a moment where, opening ceremonies happens, whatever, did you remember a moment where you could sit back and actually enjoy it enjoy what you had done.

DS: It was hard, because everything I saw, if only it could be this, or if only we had had another one of those over there. But it was pretty exciting. I mean, it was almost like I was in a dream.

AW: Well, it was your dream. Were you seeing your dream coming true everywhere you looked?

DS: Yeah.

AW: The confetti especially. There were a few moments I feel like where I saw videos, the confetti or something, or it just felt like confetti itself was sprinkled across the city. That’s very much the way it looked.

DS: Well, Jon invented this phrase, “An invasion of butterflies.”  And he also invented “Festive federalism,” because we had inherited the story motion. If the story motion was in use, like on a moving vehicle or on a fast moving screen, it blurred.  But if you took the idea of the stripes and then you did playful things with them, you did other things with them in the different colors and not in red, white and blue that became a language that Jon Jerde called festive federalism, and he said that about what I was up to.

AW: What was favorite small detail that maybe people didn’t notice, that only you would notice?

DS: I’ll tell you about two things. One was that there are people who work for the Olympic committee that get involved with the Olympics hoping and thinking and experiencing that it got them a lot of money and they got some notice. So there are these Olympic committee groupies that travel around, and sometimes we saw their picture in the paper, claiming that they did what we did. We never even met them. But we did meet one of them, and this guy was English, I believe, unless he was German.

And we came up with the idea that the winners would all get appropriate local, exotic flowers, including birds of paradise and other southern California or California kind of florae. And this guy said, you must be crazy. Athletes get roses, and that’s what we want them to have. We? He. So we went ahead with our plan and there are all these pictures of the athletes with exotic flowers and birds of paradise, looking great. We have pictures. Sports Illustrated mentioned the flowers.

AW: That’s awesome. That’s the kind of detail I like! You knew it was part of your style guide, you knew that would exactly fit particularly, and somebody wouldn’t understand that who didn’t have that same level of finesse.

DS: That triggered another memory that I wanted to tell you. One day, working down at 8th Street, I was sketching. I sketched; we didn’t have computers, it was all done by hand, paste up, and so 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 the L.A. 84. So I’m sketching on the hurdles, and I’m sketching that L.A. 84. It fit in that Corbu stencil type on the hurdle.

And Harry Usher came walking by and looked at what I had done, and he said, this is going to be very useful to us. And one of the reasons why it’s so useful and so ubiquitous is that it didn’t have those lines in it that the “Stars in Motion” had.  It was very bold, very direct; it said L.A. 84, and that L.A. 84, became the name and everything it could be applied to, it was.

AW: So that actually became the name of everything.

DS: That little sketch, this big. I had another story, too. When we began to work on the village and then everybody began to say, well what are the colors, what are the colors, there was a young man in our office of Asian descent, and he was very talented, and he said you’re not going to use those colors for the Olympics.  He said the Olympics are pure, they’re like religious. They should be white. Well, his desire was lost in the avalanche of color.

AW: But there was a lot of white, it felt like.

DS: Well, here’s another story—I mean, I can go on for the next two weeks with stories. I don’t think I will, though.

AW: There was a brightness, that everything didn’t have a lot of –

DS: Well, for example, if you’re not sure what colors things are going to eventually need to be you can start off with a blank canvas, white. So one day, in the middle of all this, the committee hired this construction company to help make sure that everything got built, and so we dealt with this guy who in my memory is 8 feet tall but he wasn’t quite that tall, Big Ed. And Big Ed came over to me and he said, we’re going to have chain link over every venue, it’s a security thing, and so we need to know how many miles in each color you want, and we need it by the end of today.

So, you know, make use of the constraints. I just said make it all white and we’ll put the color on it, and that’s what happened. That decision to make it all white was something born out of the constraints of designing for the Olympics with almost no money and hardly any time. But then, we have many examples of graphics and color on the chain link fence, on the white material, because you could put anything on white, and you could leave white. So that’s part of that story.

AW: How long was it from the beginning to the end, the actual games themselves?

DS: The games were from sometime in July to sometime in August. I don’t have it in my head right now but it’s amply recorded, and I also have here the two volumes they make, about such a volume, that the L.A. Olympics Committee had to provide. Every Olympics has to have a record, and the record is of every venue and how many square meters and who won, and all those records and records and records.

AW: Did you find, because things had to be up for a long time, were things getting stolen, were they getting vandalized?

DS: Here’s a story. In many of the venues there was landscaping, a lot of landscaping, and so what was that landscaping going to look like and what was it going to be? So the landscape architects determined what flowers and plants would survive, and then we got involved with them and then all the plantings were grown offsite and then installed in the Olympic colors in the Olympic designs.

So, 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 trampled, and nothing had been destroyed. And I think the moral of that story is you do something really good for people and they will respect that. Now, that’s not always the case, but it was the case in the Olympics. And we have photographs of the plantings in use and not being destroyed.

AW: A lot of people said things like that, like it gave a sense of pride that L.A. hadn’t seen before. Could you feel that when it was happening?

DS: Yeah.

AW: Were people saying things to each other?  What was the word on the street?  I know people were worried about the traffic—

DS: All my cultural friends went to Europe or wherever, and all the culture of Europe and of Asia was right here.

AW: So people left town because they were so scared.

DS: A lot of people left town. Was the previous on in Munich? I can’t remember now.  But everybody got lost. It was a disaster. So everybody in the beginning, and that’s where John Follis came in because he was well known for signs. The biggest challenge was going to be signing and people getting lost. Well, nobody got lost. It was easy, you know, we did the banners, there was David Meckel who fought with the DOT and the MTA and all of those things to get them to allow us to even have a little piece of the Olympics on some of these signs on the freeway.

AW: So people definitely felt like it was their civic pride swelling during this time.

DS: Yes, I think so.

AW: And a lot of people said that it made the city feel smaller, it made it feel—

DS: Accessible.

AW: Accessible, yeah, I mean were you sad that it was temporary and that these things had to go away?

DS: Yes. Well, the Coliseum is a good example. When we were doing the Coliseum, the Coliseum commission, in all its wisdom, so distrusted the Olympics Committee that when the committee found the money to at least paint the coliseum and do a few other things they made the committee guarantee that they would bring it back to its pre-Olympics condition. And then when they saw what we had done, the Coliseum wanted to keep it but it was too late, it wasn’t built to last.

You know that a number of the people who worked on the Olympics are no longer with us. Jon is barely with us, from what I understand, barely, and he hasn’t been communicative for quite a while. And there are still people around who claim they did what they didn’t do. You know, they were part of it.

AW: We know that L.A. is going to be bidding for 2024.

DS: Do we know that for sure?

AW: The guy that was at your event came up to me and gave me his card and said that he was the person from whatever, and then I also got an email from someone else saying that they’re definitely doing it in ‘24, I think.

DS: When did you get these?

AW: One guy reached out to me after I wrote an article, probably a few months ago, right after your show went up, and then the guy at your thing was like, yeah, we’re bidding, it’s happening.

DS: At which thing?

AW: At your event.  I can give you their names.

DS: I have the name of somebody, the guy who brought me up to say hello to Eric Garcetti. But at the same time, there’s another thing going on and that’s the L.A. World’s Fair, and I keep getting emails about committees meeting and yada-yada, and between a World’s Fair, which is basically a thing of the past, and Olympics which is a thing of forever, the Olympics is the way to go. Well, I would certainly be happy to meet with them and talk with them and so on.

AW: Give them some ideas.

DS: Yeah, well, I think Eric Garcetti is just great. We are lucky. You can print that.

AW: What’s your reaction when you see other Olympic games now when you have watched the millions of summer Olympics since these went up?

DS: First of all, my mind was blown with Beijing. You could never do that here. That level of discipline and conformity among that many people, it was just fantastic. With London, it’s a weird story because they ended up using my Olympic L.A. 84 palette, and there are pictures of the London Olympics with a lot of magenta and a lot of aqua. And I thought, oh, so this is a picture of L.A., and it wasn’t, it was London 2012. And I tried and other people tried to get into a dialogue about why they used the L.A. colors and it never really happened. But I would never have used those colors to represent London. I can’t give you the answer of what I would have used right now, but they wouldn’t have been Pacific Rim, southern California colors.

AW: I remember when they revealed it, and it’s so funny now because I remember writing about the London stuff so long ago and when it happened it didn’t feel that radical at all. But I think it was a lot of shock value, I think a lot of what they were trying to do was surprise people and not really make it much about London, just get a lot of attention.

DS: I thought the ceremonies were just enchanting, you know, queen and all those—I thought the ceremonies were absolutely just right on, because with the memory of the mass discipline of Beijing, the fact that they made it so quirky, and English humor was just the right way to go, is what I felt, and not make it pretentiously monumental.

AW: What did you feel the personality that was being put forth from L.A. was?  Because you’ve mentioned two really interesting things about those, what was the kind of global opinion of what L.A. was putting out in ‘84?  How were we perceived back then?

DS: That’s a good question.

AW: Do you think the Olympics changed that?

DS: Oh, I think the Olympics definitely contributed to put L.A. on a map that it didn’t used to be on, that there is a flavor here. There’s a flavor of Paris, pardon me, but for comparing Paris is my favorite city in the world, but L.A. was just big and white and movie stars and not serious, and I think it made L.A. more substantial in the eyes of the world. I never said that before.

AW: I mean, it was a tough time. There are things that are bad that happened before, obviously, a lot of things had been changing, but it was kind of this thing of optimism we could hold to us. What about television, since it was broadcast so widely? Were you considering that?

DS: Oh, yes. One of the things that Jon pointed out, and one of the things that ABC— there are millions of people who are going to see this on TV, so it was very consciously designed so that it could be seen on TV. And I remember there were people that worked with ABC camera people and producers to make sure that the camera was pointed at the things—not just at the sports but got the rest of it. And so I think there were people who were saying it was the first time that it was designed to be seen on TV around the globe, and I’m not the expert on that.

AW: I think that’s true, I think it was the first time they had sold the rights to broadcast it and made money off of it, and so it was this amazing media deal and it was exclusive to ABC and all that stuff. So it was kind of the beginning of a media partnership that defines everything we do. And I think that’s true, I think for the first time it was this package produced show.

Of course it was on television, and the Olympics had been on television before and you could watch it at home, but this was the first time that it was this very polished package that you would tune into and it really made it part of your evening programming, or whatever time of day you were watching.

I think for anyplace to have mastered that, the fact that it was L.A was pretty great because hopefully we’d be good at that since we produce so many things here that you’re supposed to watch, so it’s good that we mastered that one.

DS: It’s interesting also to compare some of the ideas that we had for television with Putin’s games, because they took, the designers took patterns from classic—I don’t know if it’s all Ukrainian—graphics and fabrics and all of that, and I thought when you looked at each one of those compositions it was really beautiful, but the way they used them was kind of spotty.

The athletes had these vests that were cut on the diagonal so you saw very little of the pattern. And whereas in our venues the entire screen, the entire field of play was ringed with a continuous design, whereas in Sochi, they were clumped.  And I felt that had they been more continuous they would have been more effective and less complicated, because if you have a complex design in a complex shape they’re fighting each other, so there, my Russian friends.

AW: I think the Olympics that had been just before were the Moscow ones, talking about geopolitics, so remember we had boycotted them and then they had boycotted us. Was any of that weighing upon you, or did you feel like it wasn’t—

DS: One of the reasons why Harry Usher 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. So to him, what our effort was, was also in response to the fact that they weren’t here. I don’t think we would have designed it any differently had they been, but that gave him a heightened interest in the design.

Paul Prejza, Deborahs husband and partner, joins us.

PP: IBM was the sponsor. We had just bought a computer at the office for accounting purposes, not designing. Working on computers as a design process was not known yet. I mean, some people were doing it but it was widespread. So we were just, you know, how much did we spend on this, it’s going to take me about two days or three days to figure that out.

So, we had this computer, so when we started getting all this stuff we didn’t really plan on a lot of it, it just happened. And then we started thinking about, well, the way to do this is we were making the fence fabrics and the tents and all that, and we have a little drawing or a cutout paste-up of it and what it was looking like. And we started this sort of catalogue on the wall, and the architects were planning the venues and what they were going to put in it, and to order these pieces. And then they would come and say well, we needed this and we don’t have one.

So finally, after a certain period of time we said no more sonar tubes, we have 80 different sonotubes designed, there will be no more designed unless it’s by very, very special dispensation. So then somebody, I think David Nichol at IBM; said let’s talk to somebody about how we’re going to do this, because we’ve got to get all this stuff to the place. So we came up with the idea, and it was mainly David’s idea, that we’d go to these moving companies and get these big trailers that will pull up to a certain spot where things are being made, or go around to certain spots, or even if they have to be delivered to the trailer, we had a staging area, so all that stuff could be put into these, the trailer that goes on a semi, to get all that to where it needs to go.

And so, that’s what happened, and to get your piece on there you had to have your list and you have to order it make sure it was going to made and all that.  Now, at the end they say that some people were swiping out of it, especially around USC where you had the village and all the stuff that was happening over around the sports arena, that was boxing, and you had the coliseum and all these things were stealing off of each other a little bit, but not a whole lot of that happened.

Anyway, we donated our computer in the office to keep tabs on this, and then we had just oddly enough one of the sign fabricator’s daughter was into computers, this was very early on, and so we hired her and she was the person who put all the data in.  That was Joe Monaghan’s daughter. What was her name? Brenda?

DS: Joe Monaghan was a sign fabricator.

PP: Yeah, she was a blond, young blond girl. Remember her? Very innocent, but she knew the job and she did it. She was hard as nails, crunched the right numbers.

DS: But it was all like, I mean there was no pre-set structure, and everybody cooperated, well, except for that English guy with his roses.

PP: Jon Jerde, you told that story.

DS: I told all about Jon in the beginning, and his ideas.

PP: But he had the foresight to get us into our own building.

DS: Yes, I went over that.

PP: And then one day in walks [someone], and I’ll never forget it, and they said what? And somebody said well, that’s the flower people, they’re talking to somebody. And she said, what’s that thing they have in their hands? That’s the little bouquet of roses or so. Did you tell her that?

DS: I told her the story of the Englishman who wanted the roses and how we, you know, the flowers, yeah, I’ve been through a lot but I haven’t been through any of this procedure. But I don’t know even how much more you—I think what we can do to help them is never been published before or rarely been, you know, not seen by the public.

AW: I would say a balance of photos that show the environment like you were talking about, and then yes, if you just have some random ephemera or anything. I think the style guide is so interesting to people, and that’s a cool thing for them to include.

DS: You mean the design guide.

PP: That was the only thing we had. Effectively, it was all being designed—

DS: But we were there.

AW: Yeah, you were in one room.

DS: You just can’t publish something and expect it to go the way you intend. You have the interrelationship between all the—

PP: Do we have the picture anywhere that [someone] took?  Do we have a copy of that anywhere?

DS: Of what?

PS: The picture that [someone] took of you and I.

DS: Isn’t that in the DQ?

AW: So you think you might have a good photo of the two of you from then, is that what you were saying?

DS: That’s a good one. Well, there’s a DQ hanging around close by. A lot of pictures were in there. The DQ is now, the Design Quarterly, we discovered that we had more of them than we knew and they are up for sale, the ones that are not going to be in the archives, and even there are pictures published in there, which a lot of people in design have seen, or let’s say only the oldies have seen, the public hasn’t seen them. It’s a whole new audience. The Olympics, that was back in the—

AW: I think part of what they’re talking about, and this is something else we talked about a little bit, too, is so many aspects of the 80s are back in very many different ways, and you talked about how the color palette, you see it popping up and coming into fashion again.

DS: We were just talking to that collector, the guy in Louisiana. He said all the graphics that the Eames has produced, a lot of which were mine, and that whole flavor is the hottest thing around now. And that’s what happened last year, that Tom Krakauer said that he and his colleagues were going crazy about all this stuff that looked so now.

AW: That’s true. That’s all coming back around.

PP: Yeah, well that’s what happens. Art history is full of that kind of thing, starting whenever. I mean the Romans to the Greeks, and most of the Roman stuff was done by the Greeks. The sculptures were all Greek.

DS: He knows everything. How many weeks do you have to pick his brain? He does know just about everything.

I got to watch Deborah and Paul play off each other for a bit longer, and then Deborah said she was getting tired. I gave her a big hug and a kiss and watched her settle back into her seat with her cava and its perfect, scintillating bubbles.

Posted in creating, designing, Los Angeles Magazine, New York Times, partying | 1 Comment

From the ashes

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Every time I write a story for Dwell I seem to have some kind of funny personal connection to the subject. A story I recently wrote about a home in Silver Lake, for example, was an apartment complex less than a mile from my house that I’d been drooling over from the sidewalk for years. So when my awesome editor Kelsey Keith reached out about this home in Boulder—where I spent 3.5 glorious collegiate years in the late 1990s—I couldn’t hit reply fast enough. Not only did I know exactly where this house was, it was located in a part of town that had been one of my most treasured afternoon escapes while I was in school. It was also a place that had been ravaged by one of the most destructive wildfires to ever hit the state.

It was incredible to hear about architect Renée del Gaudio‘s work to not only reclaim the Sunshine Canyon hillside from the fire, but also her commitment to design a hypersustainable, fireproof structure that pays homage to the type of buildings that used to populate the area. It felt good to know that this little sliver of my personal history was not only brought back to life—quite literally from the ashes—but that it was now even better than it had been before. The story is now online and includes more beautiful photos by David Lauter. Check it out here.

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Olympic fever

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30 years ago this week, the 1984 Summer Olympics started with a blast (quite literally, a dude in a jetpack) and Los Angeles was never the same. I’ve spent the last year researching and writing a few pieces on the Games That Changed Everything and I’ve never been more proud to be an Angeleno. Here’s my Olympics round up.

How LA’s 1984 Summer Olympics Became the Most Successful Games Ever: At Gizmodo, we’ve been covering the financial stress that Olympic Games have put on cities in recent years. Which led me down a path to figure out which cities—if any—had benefitted from the Games. In fact, the best example of all was right here in LA, and it was largely due to the smart design! A truly inspirational tale of civic pride, from a time and place you wouldn’t expect.

Why Would Any Country Host the World Cup?: As a follow up, I started to investigate some of the reforms that had been proposed to help reign in costs and impacts from the Olympics as well as the World Cup. I was excited to speak with Barry Sanders, chair of the Southern California Committee for the Olympic Games, about LA’s 2024 bid and how LA plans to be fiscally and environmentally responsible yet again.

Interview with Deborah Sussman: As part of their amazing 80s issue, Los Angeles Magazine asked me to sit down with the great Deborah Sussman, whose graphic design drove the identity of the Games and transformed the city. I gladly spent a few hours hearing the whole story from Deborah—from the color palette she saw in a dream to the story of the LA 84 logo.

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Posted in building, creating, designing, Gizmodo, Los Angeles Magazine, reading | 4 Comments

A transit map for drinking

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Behold, Thrillist’s Metro Drinking Map, which has been making the rounds on Twitter over the last few weeks. It seems pretty intuitive—drink your way through Los Angeles, unfettered by automobiles—but here are the official rules™: One bar per station, 10 minute walk max to bar (give or take), and the goal is that the bar is somewhat representative of the neighborhood. Some are *really* hard—who would have guessed LA has bar deserts?

But what’s especially awesome is that this map is being shared as a work-in-progress. Hate a stop’s choice? Have a pick for one of the blank stations? Tweet at @jeshizaemon and he will take your suggestions. Looks like they especially need ideas for the Green and Blue lines.

Here are a few of my recommendations to get you started. Add yours in the comments and I’ll put them in list form. My only question: When is the bar crawl?

Red Line
Hollywood/Western: Harvard and Stone

Expo Line
La Cienega/Jefferson: Mandrake
Expo/La Brea: Club Fais Do-Do
Farmdale: The Cork
Expo/Crenshaw: Post and Beam

Orange Line
Chandler/Laurel Canyon: Bar One Beer & Wine Parlour
Valley College: Robin Hood British Pub

Posted in partying, riding, walking | 1 Comment

Drink with your favorite Gizmodo writers

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In August I will celebrate one year as the Urbanism Editor at Gizmodo, a job that has been so incredibly fun and rewarding it rarely feels like work. There will be plenty more reasons to raise a glass at our Gizmodo LA Happy Hour on August 11, but that’s a pretty good one for me. Other reasons include: Meeting the five other LA-based Gizmodo writers, carousing with readers of Gawker Media sites, and because drinking in the summer is fun.

We’re going to the Cat & Fiddle in Hollywood on August 11 from 6 to 9pm. All details here, and you can RSVP on Facebook if that’s your thing. Looking forward to seeing all my fellow Gizmodo fans there.

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Celebrate my Streetsie with a walk in Echo Park

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A few months ago I was named Journalist of the Year by Streetsblog LA, an awesome site that advocates for complete streets, pedestrian safety, bike infrastructure, transit improvements—basically all the things I believe will make a better LA.

This Saturday, I’m being honored with that Streetsie Award alongside my fellow Los Angeles Walks steering committee member Jessica Meaney (see the above selfie), who was named Advocate of the Year. So of course we opted to turn the award ceremony into a walk… to a party.

Join us this Saturday in Echo Park for a short walk through one of our favorite neighborhoods, including a look at the dramatic restoration of the century-old lake. This Saturday is also the Lotus Festival, a longstanding Echo Park tradition that has been revived with the return of the lotuses themselves, which now ring the lake once again.

We’ll meet at Square One Cafe at the Boathouse on Echo Park Lake at 11:00 am (where you can get an awesome breakfast if you need to eat beforehand), then take a very chill, all-generation-friendly walk around the lake to a secret location for drinks and food. Afterwards you’ll be properly pre-partied and right in the middle of all the action for the Lotus Festival.

Tickets are a suggested donation of $10 but you can pay what you wish. Kids welcome and encouraged (they will love the walk!) but you don’t need to buy tickets for anyone under 12.

You can buy tickets here, see who’s going on Facebook here, and check out more information about the day here. All proceeds benefit Streetsblog LA, so please come and support a great organization working for a better Los Angeles! See you Saturday!

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The “not a good place for a bar crawl” bar crawl

Having dinner by myself is something I treasure when I'm traveling but hardly ever do at home. Here's to more meals eaten alone,

“Los Angeles is not what you would call a bar town, and for all the obvious reasons. The region covers almost 5,000 square miles. While public transit does exist there — and taxis and Uber are thriving — it is not New York: If you stumble out of a bar on the way home, there’s not a subway on the corner.”

It occurred to me some time ago that I might as well discontinue the #LAhaters project and simply award the Lifetime Achievement Award to the New York Times’ Adam Nagourney, who consistently serves up the most hatery haterade with columns that are somewhere between misguided and evil. The latest, “In Los Angeles, Old-Fashioned Glamour or Hip Mixology” starts with the head-shaking paragraph above. But the one line that cuts the most comes a bit later: “This is not a good place for a bar crawl.” As a semi-professional organizer of Los Angeles bar crawls, I have to disrespectfully disagree.

I have other issues with the piece, like the inclusion of some puzzling choices—Vintage Enoteca is a nice neighborhood wine bar but in no way a destination; Sunset Tower is a pretty place for a drink but not our best example of cutting-edge mixology—and the fact that the bars he chose were all clustered in one small corner of the city (not a single bar downtown?). Upon further examination, however, the bars’ geographic proximity struck me for a different reason: These four destinations would actually make the perfect bar crawl.

Therefore, I present to you my itinerary for the “Not a Good Place for a Bar Crawl” Bar Crawl, including detailed walking and transit directions. Click the little rectangle in the upper right to expand or head over to the site to see it larger. It sounds like a great day to me, shall we plan a time soon to try it out?

Start at Laurel Hardware: The most food-oriented spot on the list is the best place to start the crawl, so might I suggest you begin here with some carb-loading. If you do the crawl on the weekend and want to start in daylight hours, brunch starts at 11:00 a.m. and goes until 3:30 p.m. And it is delicious.

Walk from Laurel Hardware to Tower Bar: After your boozy breakfast, it’s a quick 17-minute walk to the Strip. I’ve selected a route through West Hollywood’s Harper Street Historic District, which will give you a beautiful introduction to the 1920′s Art Deco architecture of Sunset Tower. The only catch for doing the crawl during the day is that the Tower Bar doesn’t open until 6:00 p.m., so time your arrival appropriately. Otherwise the Terrace Bar is outdoors, has great views, and is open all day.

Walk from Tower Bar to Vintage Enoteca: After your high-class imbibing you can walk down the Strip, with optional stop at the Guitar Center, to Vintage Enoteca, 20 minutes away. They’re conveniently open every day until midnight. (If you’d rather bus it, it’s a quick 10 minute ride.)

Bus from Vintage Enoteca to Covell: Grab the 2 bus at Gardner and Sunset. It’s only $1.50 per trip, which you can pay in cash (exact change only), but you can also ask for a day pass for $6, which gives you unlimited rides and comes with a TAP card that can be reloaded with fare next time you ride. Download the Metro app to your phone and you’ll be able to get route information as well as real-time arrivals so you’ll know if you have time to order another glass. After the 35-minute ride, hop off at the corner of Virgil and Sunset and walk a half-block to Covell.

End at Covell: There’s no better place in the city to end your night than Covell, easily one of my favorite L.A. bars. In this tiny, cozy space you can sample life-changing wines (I could write an entire article about a vinho verde I had here) with the friendliest and most knowledgable of folks, and fill up on exquisite bar snacks. If you need to get somewhere after last call, you can summon a taxi or Uber (I hear they are thriving), but it’s also very easy to get home on transit—the Red Line is less than a block away.

Yes, that’s correct. There is a subway on the corner.

Posted in eating, partying, riding, walking | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

The New Yorker needs more photos of LA

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You may remember this image and some of the language below it from few months ago when the article “Leaving Los Angeles” received an impressive 629 points on the LA Haterating scale.

Well, this week, The New Yorker published another article about Los Angeles, and I thought for a moment I had clicked upon the very same hatery article.

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I will not be giving Gabriel Kahane’s essay an #LAhaters rating—frankly, because it’s pretty and honest and slyly winking in all the best ways—but I do want to mention something here about the story. I’m really worried about The New Yorker. Apparently the publication only owns this one photo of Los Angeles.

It’s a beautiful photo, no doubt, shot by one Bruce Davidson. Surely it’s not the only photo of Los Angeles by Bruce Davidson, seeing as they’ve made an entire video about him taking photos of Los Angeles. But for two very different articles about two very different people experiencing two different parts of a city, they have chosen to use the exact same photo. There’s no other explanation for it: They must only have one.

Here’s the more upsetting fact to some: As several people have pointed out, this photo is of a part of town that most people would identify as San Pedro, which—while still technically LA—is its own place (and at one time, was its own city).

For a publication that sometimes runs a department called “Postcard from Los Angeles,” you’d think they’d have, perhaps, one postcard from Los Angeles?

Unfortunately, they don’t. But it makes sense to me now. It makes sense now why The New Yorker would have this skewed, stereotypical view of our city. They’ve only seen this one image of it. And it’s not even in color.

Let’s send The New Yorker our photos of LA so they might believe that there is more than just this one street, this one palm tree, this one black-and-white vista. I want to help show this publication what LA is really like. You can dispatch your images as tweets to @NewYorker. I just did.

 

Posted in reading, writing | Tagged , , | 3 Comments

The Big Parade: You can do it!

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It’s time!

The routes and timetables have been posted for this year’s Big Parade, almost certainly the best urban hike on the planet. At least in LA.

As I told the Daily News in an article about this year’s event:

“The Big Parade is a great example of an event that combines everything I love about walking in L.A. — community, history, nature, architecture — into one adventure,” said longtime participant Alissa Walker, urbanism editor at the blog Gizmodo and a member of the steering committee for Los Angeles Walks, a pedestrian advocacy organization.

“You end up meeting your neighbors and seeing parts of your neighborhood you’ve never seen before. But you also gain a greater understanding of how the city is knit together.”

I stand by that statement.

In addition to all the community, history, nature, and architecture, this year we have a really big, really awesome surprise in the form of a private concert at the home of my friend Joshua Wolf Shenk. He’s hosting the amazing Gabriel Kahane, who has written an entire album of songs about LA, which you may have heard on NPR. The party is Saturday night but you can only find out where it is if you’re walking with us on Saturday. What better reason is there to join?

I’ll also be walking the entire day Sunday, starting at the Music Box Stairs, just down the street from my house. There’s no better feeling than ending the weekend at Griffith Observatory at sunset. Okay, there’s maybe one better feeling: the first post-walk margarita.

Check out all the details over at The Big Parade website, and to get yourself pumped you can also read up on all my coverage over the years:

Walking for walking in Los Angeles (2009)
100 staircases, 35 miles, two days, and too many new friends to count (2010)
Six garages, six gardens & Taking the stairs (2011)
The very Big Parade (2012)
Five things to know about The Big Parade (2013)

I’ll see you there!

Posted in partying, walking | 1 Comment

Happy 75th, Union Station

Afterlight

It’s a place I visit several times a week as part of my car-free journeys. You’d think the drama of the spot would have worn off by now. Yet every time I round this corner with my rollie suitcase or my laptop tucked under my arm, I stop what I’m doing and absorb the beauty. Since 1939, Union Station has been turning the heads of commuters and visitors alike, and this year, our grandest and most gorgeous structure turned 75 years old.

There have been plenty of celebrations and commemorations for the station, but I wanted to point your attention to a book called Union Station: 75 Years In the Heart of LA, featuring essays about the station’s civic significance. I’m incredibly honored to say that I was asked to contribute an essay to the book, and my name is listed alongside my writing heroes like David Kipen, Marisela Norte, and D. J. Waldie.

photo 6My essay, “Union Station Today: Making Cultural Connections,” is now posted over at the Metro blog, where you’ll soon be able to read all the essays in the book. Here’s a small excerpt from mine, which explains my thesis that Union Station has become a vibrant part of LA’s swiftly urbanizing life:

When I breeze through Union Station, making my transfer to the Metro Gold Line or catching the FlyAway to LAX, I’m used to seeing a wedding party posing for photos among the rose bushes of the patio, or a film shoot bringing the long-empty Old Ticket Concourse back to life. The picturesque passageways and their well-preserved artistry will always be the go-to stand-in for 1940s L.A.

But in the last few years, with the staging of massive music performances like Invisible Cities, art-world spectacles (such as the recent Station to Station happening in September 2013), and critical civic moments, the role of Union Station has transformed from a period-perfect backdrop into an animated cultural concourse.

Now, in addition to being the connective tissue between the city’s nodes, for an increasingly transit-oriented Los Angeles, Union Station has become a crucial part of the destination.

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If you’re like me and enjoy some LA history mixed with some train nerdery, this book will hit the sweet spot. You can buy your copy here. A huge thanks to Heidi Zeller and Metro for asking me to contribute to this project.

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