Kanye West & Hype Williams's Production Designer Susan Linss Reveals the Secrets of Her Success
Words of wisdom from the woman who shaped Kanye’s world in the early days.
Growing up as a descendant of Persian royalty, and as the daughter of a celebrated fine artist in a household where art, culture and tradition were at the forefront has unsurprisingly given designer Susan Linss an elevated artistic taste. A relentless work ethic sustains this talent, and for over 20 years Linss has had her finger on the pulse of the highest levels of art, fashion and design, and has conceptualized, designed and executed for many iconic artists across multiple industries. From Rihanna and Jay Z, to directors Brett Ratner and Doug Liman, all the way to corporate America for Pfizer and Heineken, Linss has created visual worlds for those who have played a major role in shifting their respective cultures. She was also a close collaborator of Kanye West and was instrumental in shaping his style and image, overseeing the physical execution of many of West’s most acclaimed earlier offerings, from tours including Touch The Sky and Glow In The Dark; a number of his boundary-pushing music videos including those for “Flashing Lights” and “Stronger”; and events including the Louis Vuitton Don’s infamous 30th birthday party held at the Louis Vuitton store in New York City.
Linss believes that creations should be made to evoke emotion and that art has no limits, and her career thus far reflects that. She is, for all intents and purposes, a production designer, but take her work with Kanye as an example of how her craft encompasses much more than creating physical spaces. She was his interior designer, transforming his New York City loft. She was his creative consultant, working on branding for G.O.O.D. Music as well as concepts and visual referencing for many varieties of projects. She was principal of G.O.O.D. Pictures, the visual equivalent to G.O.O.D. Music. She informed his fashion sense, helping bring to life the iconic shutter shades from the “Stronger” era. Perhaps most significantly she enriched his knowledge of and love for the finer things, introducing him to art, design and architecture. She worked with him at a crucial point in his career when his status as a cultural provocateur was in its infancy, helping build the foundation upon which all he does at present is built. “The passion was already there,” says Linss, “but I definitely expanded his knowledge and his horizons.”
Linss was already firmly established within the music industry as a noted production designer well before meeting ‘Ye in 2004. She went to the School of Visual Arts and received her BFA (she would later return to her alma mater to teach a class for which Q-Tip and Louis Vuitton were involved as her subjects). Her career began in the early 1990s when, disillusioned with working on corporate identity projects, she left her graphic design job and turned to waiting tables to make ends meet. A chance meeting with a production designer who worked on feature films introduced her to the industry, and she worked for an entire year—for free—on every project she could get on, seizing every opportunity as a production or art department assistant while continuing to wait tables on the side to supplement her income. “There was a lot of trial and error; a lot of falling down,” Linss says of those early days getting her foot in the door. “It was a lot of putting myself out there and working 24-hour days. But I was willing to do anything. I would get my boss coffee if I had to, even if that wasn’t my position. You have to be humble.”
Her tireless work ethic served her well as Linss started to get more opportunities, including working on the award-winning British documentary Seven Songs for Malcolm X. Filmmaker and acclaimed cinematographer Arthur Jafa took a chance on a young Susan—”I don’t know why,” she says—but not without a strong word of warning: ”He told me, ‘you better not fuck up.’ I did it all with one production assistant — I drove the truck; I painted canvases; I busted my ass.” In case you’re wondering what ass-busting entails, it includes working with a 104° fever over Thanksgiving, as well as altering over 500 square feet of wallpaper by hand to get the perfect look. But it was worth it, and soon enough Linss found herself in P. Diddy’s office, when a chance meeting with Hype Williams changed the course of her career forever.
“Puff had hired me to production design the Mary J. Blige ‘Be Happy’ video and he was going to direct it, but then he eventually hired Hype to do it instead,” Linss says of the fateful meeting (it was also the first ever Diddy/Hype Williams collab). “Hype walked into Puffy’s office and greeted me by saying ‘what’s up dude’ and I was like, ‘I’m not a dude,’ and we laughed. At that time Hype happened to be looking for a new production designer, and the rest is history.” They formed a special bond which was marked by an almost psychic level of collaborative chemistry: “Sometimes we only needed to have one small conversation and we knew what we needed to do; we would just listen to the song and know the aura.” That intuition is at the heart of Linss’ mystery and magic, and guides her in transforming the feeling generated by the music into a vision that captures the emotion authentically: “That’s why I loved being in the music industry, because I feel like I can see the music, and feel it, and I have this deep understanding of the artist and what they’re trying to say.” Williams and Linss would go on to create groundbreaking cinematic music videos for the biggest hip-hop artists of the era including Mary J. Blige, The Notorious B.I.G., Usher, Wu-Tang, Naughty by Nature and Blackstreet, to name a few, creating a look for hip-hop that defined the culture visually. This was the golden age of music videos before the digital revolution, when mega budgets were still available for their productions: “The bigger, the better,” as Linss says. Linss was known for her willingness to go to any lengths in the name of her art: “Hype asked me to blow up a building for a Firm Biz video with Nas, and I made it happen.”
Kanye is image. There is no hyperawareness. He loves art, design, fashion, architecture and film. It’s in his soul, it’s real. It has nothing to do with image and I understand this well because it is who I am as well. That’s why we had such a strong connection.
Hype used to affectionately call her “Uptown” for her luxurious tastes, which Linss says comes from an upbringing in which she was immersed in arts and culture by her parents. Her father is noted fine artist Ali Dowlatshahi who had done work for the Shah of Iran (and ruffled Revolutionist feathers in the process; to this day her father is banned from the country) and who one painted a portrait of John F. Kennedy Jr. that hung in the White House during his presidency. After immigrating to the U.S. from Iran, her parents surrounded themselves with other artists, musicians and dignitaries, meaning that young Susan was exposed to a lot while growing up and developed a refined taste early on. “It’s not necessarily about having luxurious things,” Susan clarifies, “but about being soulful. To be able to see and appreciate the beauty in things.”
Linss met Kanye West when she was hired as the production designer for Common’s “Go” video, which Kanye himself was set to direct. She had just been offered a multi-million dollar contract for Coca-Cola but turned it down in favor of working with Mr. West. “I’ve never been driven by the money,” Linss says of the decision. “I wanted to work with Kanye, and not just because of the music he was putting out, but because he had directed the “Ordinary People” video for John Legend and I remember seeing it and thinking about how many artists I worked with who wanted to direct and could never get it right, but he got it. The budget for the Common video was ridiculously small, especially considering what they wanted to do for the money they had. But I didn’t care; I just wanted to work with him.”
As was becoming her modus operandi, Linss floored Kanye with her can-do and whatever-it-takes approach when they had to make a massive set change the day before their shoot: “I accomplished the changes he wanted, making it look better than he had imagined. He asked me at the end of that project to come and look at the new loft in SoHo he had just purchased.” Within three months, Susan had her own office and staff to work on everything creative and visual for Kanye and G.O.O.D. Music, shaping his aesthetic and taste with her broad knowledge of art, design, and the world. “I took him to Design Miami and Art Basel – this is before it became a party,” says Linss. “I helped him get into art collecting. In the art world you can’t just joke around and buy and sell things ‘for fun,’ so I helped the dealers to see him as a serious collector.”
Linss worked exclusively for Kanye from 2004 to 2009, and on a project to project afterwards. Kanye trusted her creative direction so much that he brought her to Hawaii in 2010 to provide inspiration for My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy because he needed her magic touch. Amongst roundtable discussions with the likes of RZA, Pusha T and Rick Ross, Linss introduced him to Matthew Barney’s work, an artist who combines sculpture, performance and video whom West recently referred to as “his Jesus.” While she no longer works for West exclusively, Linss looks back on her days with him fondly: “We were really close. I was almost like his confidant and we would share a lot. He’s difficult, yes, and demanding, but I’ve worked with everyone and he’s one of the hardest working artists I’ve ever met. And so passionate.” Linss insists that there’s nothing fabricated about Kanye’s image as some might assume: “Kanye is image. There is no hyperawareness. He loves art, design, fashion, architecture and film. It’s in his soul, it’s real. It has nothing to do with image and I understand this well because it is who I am as well. That’s why we had such a strong connection.” Perhaps her lasting impact on Kanye is that she helped the most honest artist of our time find truth, even if it created controversy.
It’s not just her clients in the music industry that Linss has been able to impress. She once worked on a BlackBerry campaign for the notoriously eccentric and difficult brand guru Peter Arnell (who was called “one of New York’s worst bosses” by Gawker, and a “crazy genius” by Newsweek), for which his only direction to her was “mysterious and voyeuristic.” But even with that limited direction, she was able to determine the truth he was looking for: “By the end of the shoot, he called me a ‘fucking genius,’” Linss remembers. “One of the other producers told me, ‘he’s never talked to anyone that way; you’ve really slayed the dragon.’”
After two decades spent building a CV that reads like any designer’s dream, Linss has redirected her drive towards creating her own worlds based on her own vision, with numerous personal projects in the works. A documentary on her life story is being filmed by emerging director Mike Rhodes and executive produced by Suhayb Ibn M Zarroug of the Switzerland-based Zarr Group. She is passionate about the social and political issues surrounding race and police brutality in America, and wants to use art to make a difference: “There are artists doing it, but I feel we have a responsibility to do more.” She also wants to fight some of the misconceptions about her heritage, and not just for the Iranian community but the the Middle Eastern community as a whole. “The community is huge in this country,” she says, “and it’s so misunderstood. There’s so much beauty there, and yet we’re just looked at as terrorists. It’s awful. I want to create installations that speak to society and express what I feel is diminishing today: human contact, soulfulness, hope, mystery and magic. I come from such a rich heritage that is full of that, and controversy as well.”
With the wealth of experience that she has, Linss is an oracle of advice for any aspiring designers and creatives looking to follow in her footsteps. You have to be prepared to do whatever it takes to get a job done, she warns. “I’ve never said no,” Linss declares firmly. “I’ve never worked with someone who said ‘This is what I want’ and I’ve said ‘No, it can’t happen.’ Never. You go and make it happen and you figure it out.” Also, your relationships are like gold and should be treated like so. “People want to know that you bring a good energy,” she says. “I’ve been hired over other designers who we were equally as qualified but I was told after that I got hired because of my personality. When it really comes down to it, the way you carry and conduct yourself is really important.” She also warns against taking things too personal: “If I work with someone for a long time and then that relationship ends, I never think ‘oh no, what did I do?’ We all need a change sometimes; I’m growing and evolving and I need that from the people around me. It’s not hard feelings or personal; it happens. It’s a natural evolution and part of the process. When one door closes, always something else opens.”
“The internet has 100% cheapened the idea of being a designer or curator. I never use the internet for creative inspiration.”
While she knows the value of the Internet as a promotional and networking tool, Linss warns against getting stuck on it. “The internet has 100% cheapened the idea of being a designer or curator,” she says. “I never use the internet for creative inspiration. I love to travel so a lot of my inspiration comes from that. Fine art, contemporary art, installation art. Sculpture, art books, museums, galleries, a lot of photography, and film including foreign ones — French, Chinese and Persian films.” She also worries about a younger generation that might be missing out on so much value that is in their surroundings: “I think the younger generation is a bit caught up with so many things, so distracted. They’re kind of asleep actually,” says Linss. “It’s so important for the younger generation to know they can be creative. It doesn’t have to be a certain way or very cookie cutter with a five-year plan and going to college and studying this or that. You can pursue your dreams.”
And most importantly, in an industry that’s notoriously cutthroat, never give up; in fact, use any missteps or setbacks as further motivation. “Things have definitely gotten difficult and I’ve had challenging moments, but I’ve never felt ‘I can’t do this anymore,’” says Linss. “My reaction is more, ‘I’ll show you.’” And she has, time and time again.