Irma Hardjakusumah: A Left Turn to Design Freedom

When I saw this photo of Irma Hardjakusumah and her fierce design squad posed all fierce and fabulous in front of this beautiful dome of color and shapes, I knew it was a story I wanted to tell you. (See credits at bottom of post) Which is the best thing about having my own newsletter and blog  — I can! And I can also ask questions to people I admire about things I’ve always wondered about. For instance, just what does Studio Left, the name of Irma’s design firm, mean? Her answer was as charming, off-beat and memorable as she is.

“I was at a gas station and went into the little store there,” she recalls. “Taped to the front door was a piece of paper with a clumsily drawn arrow and the text, ‘Enter through the left side.’ I liked that. I liked that it’s casual, it’s not the obvious route, it’s unpretentious, that it promises nothing but a solution – enter through the left.”

Which brings us to her take on design. “A lot of people put design on a pedestal. A lot of designers revel in its ‘preciousness’ which in a way gives permission to diva-like behaviors”

To me, design is gritty, scrappy and infinite. It always has room for improvement and it’s always growing. You are always on a quest for an alternative route.

Irma Hardjakusumah

Irma began her journey on this route starting in 1999 when she left Indonesia for America. A self-described environmental designer of temporary spaces (the gray area between architecture, interior and product designer) Irma began her career in this country with classes at Art Center and UCLA. She then worked for a design firm for 12 years up until she had her son. After taking some time off to enjoy him, Irma began Studio Left in 2011.

It built slowly with a solid foundation in design and has grown to be recognized by some of the largest producers in America and abroad. And yet with growth comes sacrifice. “Since the beginning of my career, I’ve had to carve out time at night or on the weekends to do design explorations, attend design events, read publications or participate in festivals. It is not always easy (most of the time, my commercial projects bleed into those reserved personal time). So, a lot of the festivals remained on my bucket list.” Until now.

Irma Hardjakusumah
The Shell at the LA Design Festival

The pandemic has, for better or worse, given her time to enter work at the LA Design Festival with her team. The installation was a piece called “The Shell,” a dome which is a play of structure and skin explores the concept of enclosures and spaces as a piece of architecture, an object, and a scenic element.

The fanciful piece ended up being held over at the LA Design Festival for several months – you can still see it now at ROW DTLA — and it was included in LA Design Festival X World Design Week. When I asked what she hoped from the project for  herself and her team, Irma said, “A project that doesn’t have any other agenda other than allow us to grow as designers is something I really believe in,” Irma says.

As always, Irma sees her work in larger terms. “The arts and design community will always create, through pandemic, political unrest, wars, and other catastrophes, as history has shown.  The world needs love, joy and solutions.”  Which can often be found, as Irma has shown, by simply taking an alternative route which in this case is the one that is casual, unpretentious and far from obvious.

Find Studio Left here, on Instagram @studio_left and @ihardjakusumah and on Facebook

For more on Irma’s event design such as the Oscars, Emmy’s and stages, check out this article I wrote several years ago.

Photo at top, from left to right: Jeanette Simatauw, Art Director/Stylist | Irma Hardjakusumah, Principal/Founder | Putri Sarnadi, Project Manager | Susun Kwak, Environmental/ Experiential Designer | Jessica Rovanio, environmental/Experiential Designer


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