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Sunday, June 22, 2003
Behind the scenes with interior designer Deborah Sussman

By Melinda Bargreen
Seattle Times music critic

If you think opera houses should be taupe, beige and off-white, you have a surprise coming when you enter McCaw Hall. The colors — vivid oranges, deep eggplants, wine-reds, emerald greens — look as if someone had opened a very sophisticated box of Crayolas and let fly.

Deborah Sussman
Deborah Sussman
Who is the designer behind all these colors? And what was she thinking?

Who she is: It's Deborah Sussman, a principal of Sussman/Prejza and Co. of Culver City, Calif., a well-established designer and a pioneer of "environmental graphic design." She took up the challenge of creating McCaw Hall interiors at the request of LMN, the architectural firm designing the hall.

"They wanted an interior that was dramatic. They were interested in color," Sussman says.

How she did it: "I responded to the quality of light in Seattle. The lobby faces sunset. I thought about those colors, and also about the time when I flew through the aurora borealis. Northern colors aren't all gray and brown."

The vertical walls of the lobbies have "striations or bands of colors you get in the sunset," Sussman says, "and the shimmer of rain and wet surfaces is reflected in the design of the carpet and the terrazzo tile. The carpet, which is dark wine, carries out in its design the idea of water droplets and rivulets after the rain. The upper lobby walls are also reflective; they change color as you walk by."

Sussman sees the whole building as one space, which gradates in color from bottom (reddish tones) to top (purple).

Inside the auditorium, warmer tones in the back of the house change to cooler shades toward the stage, outlined in obsidian (near-black). Emerald tones are reflected in the seat coverings. And on the ceiling, lights will be projected in a further "northern lights" metaphor, with reds, greens, blues and purple.

Sussman selected 116 wall finishes: 99 colors of paint and 17 others (fabrics, plaster, metal leaf). The number of paint colors was ultimately reduced to 75, to save costs.

When Sussman presented her color palettes to the architects, the artistic directors (of Seattle Opera and Pacific Northwest Ballet) and the Seattle Center administrators, there was not instant jubilation.

"Yes, there were some things they didn't like," she says. "It happens! But the client and we were pretty much on the same pages. There were many, many people deciding, including board members, and (donor) Susan Brotman, whose name is on the auditorium. Everyone was in on the process, which brought in a certain level of intensity. These colors are definitely a stretch, in that environment. But everyone was very open."

Her background: How do you get to be the person who "finds the DNA of a project that leads to a color concept"?

In Sussman's case, you major in painting and acting at Bard College and go on to the Design Institute of Chicago. You study art and performance with Merce Cunningham and John Cage. You join the office of design legends Charles and Ray Eames, and win a Fulbright grant. Your project for the Los Angeles County Museum of Art brings you to the notice of architects. The firm Sussman started in 1972 with her husband, Paul Prejza, now employs 30.

Does she think the McCaw Hall colors will be controversial?

"I hope they create a sense of excitement," says Sussman, who will be here for the opening. "There's nothing wrong with taupe and beige. But in an opera house, there is so much more you can do.

"There are millions of colors. Picking the right ones is a challenge I just love."


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