On April 19, Lucille Tenazas, the Henry Wolf Professor in the School of Art, Media, and Technology at Parsons The New School for Design, will receive the graphic design world’s highest honor: a medal from the American Institute of Graphic Arts (AIGA). Receiving the AIGA Medal puts her in august company: Charles and Ray Eames, Robert Rauschenberg, and Tibor Kalman, to name just a few, have also received the award.
Tenazas is a veteran of design who has practiced on both coasts. The number of interviews it took her, as a woman and Filipina, to get her first design job in New York is the stuff of industry legend (it was 65). Since then, she has continually broken new ground in both graphic design and education. The founder of Tenazas Design, a communication design firm that focuses on cultural, educational, and nonprofit organizations, she has worked with clients as diverse as the National Endowment for the Arts and the pharmaceutical company Bristol-Myers (now Bristol-Myers Squibb), producing materials that translate complex content into elegant, multilayered visuals.
Not that Tenazas finds the diversity of her clients daunting. To her, it’s the natural order of things. “Designers are cultural nomads,” she told the News, “always taking on work that is totally new to them and outside of their background. When you’re a designer, it’s not about you; it’s about listening to the client. As a designer, you can do that because you know who you are.”
Tenazas has been recognized not only by the AIGA but also by Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum, which presented her with a National Design Award in Communication Design in 2002. She has done equally groundbreaking work in education, both here at Parsons and at California College of Arts and Crafts (now CCA), whose MFA program in graphic design she founded.
“My ideas about design education are built on three things,” she explained. “One is form making. I really feel that the making of things is crucial. I am also interested in leadership. A lot of times, designers are at the bottom of the totem pole and at someone else’s bidding. I want students to feel at an equal level with clients in terms of playing a leadership role. The third is writing. Designers deal with typography and information; they can’t be illiterate. And when I say illiterate, I mean having no understanding of the poetics of language.”
It is this dedication to the notion of the designer as a confident interdisciplinary practitioner that has earned Tenazas such acclaim. In discussing her many contributions to the field, the AIGA praised Tenazas for “her prominent role in translating postmodern ideas into critical design practice; her exploration of the relationship between type, photography, and language; and the development and leadership of highly respected design education programs—always with exquisite execution.”