My first designer profile in a long while! I love to explore the passions that drive us in business and in life, and Irma Hardjakusumah is nothing if not driven by her passion for great design in both. I mean, look at that Niagara Falls style she is rocking!
I have been following Irma’s work, and that of her Los Angeles-based company, Studio Left, since first seeing it in 2013. The lighted Avatar-inspired trees she designed for the Emmy Awards Governors Ball produced by Sequoia Productions were truly a revelation (more about these below).
Irma works in several different circles other than events so I didn’t see her again until four years later … once again it was at the Emmy Awards Governors Ball. This time it was the media preview. We talked under an impressive sea of 5,000 gold-painted cardboard tubes installed in the ceiling of the Los Angeles Convention Center (more on this below).
After that, I began following her on Instagram. Her personal page is a colorful mashup of selfies with her signature art sunglasses, costume jewelry and books that I too had read or wanted to read. When she began a business page for her company, Studio Left, and began dropping fascinating design “truth bombs,” I finally sent a DM – “I would love to do a blog on the passions that drive you.”
And here we are!
A self-described multi-disciplinary designer, Irma has studied architecture, graphic design, and environmental and interior design. All these disciplines find their way into her creations for events, exhibits, interiors, furniture, stages, productions and more.
“Working in many fields keeps me on my toes,” she said. “It keeps me from being pigeon holed, and they lead to other projects, feeding into each other.”
Whatever the project, the thing Irma loves most about design is the story it can tell. “You get to tell people about a lost world, or era,” she said. “You get to take them on a fantasy and you get to do it with space and composition.”
Traditionally, Irma explains, there are two distinctive types of designers — those that are process-driven and those that are portfolio-driven. The first puts a lot of emphasis in the process and the journey. They go through tedious and ample amount of time in concept development, strategy and design development. No decision is arbitrary and there’s a reason for everything. It’s all about a solid concept. The latter put more emphasis in the final product. “A lot of their design decisions are highly intuitive and sometimes borderline impulsive,” Irma explained. It’s all about the visuals for them. I am an advocate of both. There’s a time and place for for both approaches.”
As her work clearly demonstrates. And that’s what makes her so fascinating as a designer. Irma is as interested in the process of the story — of creating twists and turns in plot, of guiding the reader to insights, new ways of thinking, and just plain entertainment – as she is in the final destination of that journey.
Here are four of those stories …
A Tree Grows in Los Angeles
For the 2013 Emmy Awards Governors Ball at the Los Angeles Convention Center, producer Sequoia Productions turned to Irma to create an environment inspired by that in Avatar. Under a night sky canopy of LEDs Irma designed three 40-foot-tall trees that would surround the main stage. The trees were then fabricated and installed by Bill Ferrell Company and Sosa Sisters.
So that they weren’t dwarfed by the massive space around them, Irma designed the trees with oversized branches and large “leaves” created from various lengths of Coreplex. Working with Ray Thompson of Images by Lighting, they devised a way that the leaves could be lighted. They were hung from wood disks that measured two and four feet in diameter. From these, the long pieces of Coreplex could easily be attached then lighted in any color. An LED par was attached with a special bracket which enabled each leaf section to have an LED par capable of shifting into any programmed color. And because it was connected to the DMX control, the lighting was able to chase, swirl and sequence in a variety of colors throughout the event.
All That Glitters
The theme of the 2017 Governors Ball following the 69th Annual Emmy Awards was Golden Grandeur, yet not all that glittered was gold. That’s because the event producer for the past 20 years, Sequoia Productions, was committed to making as many of the evening’s elements sustainable and reusable.
To that end, the most dramatic element of the monochromatic design was sustainable. Irma designed 5,000-plus tubes ranging in length from two to 20 feet. Each was painstakingly installed vertically by Sosa Sisters Design to create a sweeping wave effect in the ceiling of the Los Angeles Convention Center. But instead of made from metal or plastic, they were cylinders of paper painted in a biodegradable gold coloring.
The ceiling was dramatic from any angle, yet lighting was the key to bringing them fully come alive. Again, Irma worked with Images by Lighting (brought in by Sequoia Productions) to create a play of lighting that would add movement across the tubes and at times totally change their color to go with the mood and the music, creating emotional crescendos when the evening called for them. In between the cylinders, Edison bulbs hung on long cables to add warmth and another layer of interest as guests looked up.
The design objective for the stage used at the 19th Costume Designers Guild Awards (CDGA) in 2017 was two-fold — it needed to work at an awards show, and later at the symposium. Add to this the fact they are in two different locations.
The awards are held at the Beverly Hilton and there are a lot of built-in parameters. “The set pieces need to work with a screen,” Irma explained. “And the natural entrances and exits of the stage (since the stage deck and back of house is a permanent built within the venue).”
At the end of the awards show, Irma and team packed up the set and sent it on to the next location — NeueHouse Hollywood where the symposium would be held. Installation began the next morning when the set was reconfigured for a panel of speakers. The only change was the addition of extra pieces for sponsorship branding.
“We don’t have an unlimited budget, so we constantly need to be creative with materials and applications,” Irma said of this, and really almost all of her designs. “Looking at unconventional materials and coming up with an application that will highlight its strength is one of my favorite things in the world. I believe that limitations (such as budget, time or venue capabilities) should not limit your imagination, and I definitely didn’t want to give up that easily and resort to something easy like drape rental whenever other options are still possible.”
“So I started playing with paper folding with the aim of creating a multi-faceted medium that will just go crazy with light,” she continued. “I created a few patterns and we did a few mock ups with some materials I had in mind. Literally, the first round of experiments worked. And that was pretty much what we built for the real set.”
Sometimes it’s the simple answers that work.
The last event featuring Irma’s work we are looking at is the Swarovski’s Sparkling Secrets exhibition held in Shanghai. It was designed as an immersive look at 100 years of the famous crystal company’s history. The production team, led by Havas Luxe Events, brought Irma in as design director.
The story began in the Crystal Maze — a 3D timeline with a video wall showing crystal imagery. This led visitors into a blue room with a series of window displays built into the walls. Inside the boxes, key dates in Swarovski history were brought to life. “You walk through the timeline, you understand where they started, and then you get a feeling of their world,” Irma said.
From there visitors entered the Swarovski Hall of Fame focused on all of the company’s collaborations with music stars and celebrities including Madonna, Lady Gaga, Jennifer Lopez, Britney Spears and Audrey Hepburn. The final destination was the Creative Lab, where they were introduced to the world of the Swarovski creative team, headed by Paris-based creative director Nathalie Colin.
“She designs a lot of Swarovski’s jewelry line in her Paris office,” Irma said. “This is her world, so we showcased her creative process, her team, what they do, her inspiration. We did a mock-up of her actual office in Paris.”
An interesting project, and perfect for a multi-disciplinarian designer such as Irma; one that allowed all her talents and design philosophies to sparkle.
Thank for reading! I’m finishing this designer profile with three of Irma’s Instagram design truth bombs.
Don’t design for ego
Your ego is a bad designer. It prevents you from listening or seeing any road that might lead to real solutions. Design is not about you. It is about the subject or object of your designer. You always have to serve and find what’s best for the project. Even if it means that you abandon ideas you love.
To design well you must respect limitations
Design to the budget. Design to you allowed installation time. Design to your venue’s maximum ability. Design to your material’s natural strength. Design intelligently. But those limitations should never, ever limit your imagination.
There is nothing more deceptive than an obvious fact.
We learned design from parallel theories and learned a lot from the master of deduction, Sherlock Holmes. Don’t take things at face value. Keep an open mind. Change your perspective. Let the dust settle. Revisit fact. Design is a lot like detective work.