During her long career as a design practitioner and educator, Lucille Tenazas has been associated with California. That's understandable, considering the many years she lived and worked there, even though she's now based in New York. With its rich, bright color palette and compositional freedom, her graphic approach itself evokes the geography and diversity of the Golden State while also reflecting Tenazas's exposure as a student to the playful, postmodern school of design that emerged there in the late 1970s. But the Manila native might never have made it to the United States in the first place without the help of a kindly aunt and, indirectly, Imelda Marcos.
From an early age Tenazas was artistically inclined. In first grade at a Catholic girls' school run by German nuns, she was asked to draw trees and add them up for an arithmetic exercise. Rather than doing her math, however, “I was drawing palm trees, with branches and leaves, every one of them articulated,” she recalls. “I heard my teacher's footsteps and looked up. She said, 'You know, you have some talent.'” Soon, Tenazas began winning national painting contests and getting her picture in the newspaper. Later, in an inkling of her future career direction, she began “pairing the drawing with the literary” as art director of her high school's yearbook and then her college's literary magazine.
After graduating from college with a BFA in advertising arts in 1975, she got a job designing marketing and promotional materials for pharmaceutical companies like Bristol-Myers (now Bristol-Myers Squibb) and SmithKline & French (now GlaxoSmithKline). That's when her aunt got in touch. Unbeknownst to Tenazas, her father, a civil engineer who'd passed away a few years earlier, had financed all of his siblings' college educations; her aunt, now a doctor living in Michigan, wanted to return the favor by bringing Tenazas to the States to pursue postgraduate work. Around the same time, Marcos sent some of Tenazas's colleagues to design schools in the United States as part of Design Center Philippines, a think tank the government launched to promote design awareness and Filipino product design. One friend, a jewelry designer, went to the Cranbrook Academy of Art, just a 10-minute drive from Tenazas's aunt. Although she knew nothing else about the school, Tenazas decided to apply there too, but she was rejected repeatedly. “I think my portfolio was just not Western enough, and not sophisticated enough,” she says. Instead, almost at random, she enrolled in courses at CCA (then the California College of Arts and Crafts) in San Francisco. “But I'm in Michigan!” her aunt exclaimed on hearing the news. “It's OK, I'll take the bus and visit you on weekends,” Tenazas responded, not understanding the geography of the United States.
When she walked into class on her first day in 1979, a jet-lagged Tenazas had no idea that she was entering a hothouse of design experimentation. “I think luck favors the prepared mind,” she says. Although she didn't realize what she was getting herself into, she was ready to absorb the lessons of Michael Vanderbyl and other CCA educators who were leading California's new wave-a playful, colorful design approach that was a dramatic counterpoint to the more buttoned-down, corporate aesthetic of their East Coast counterparts.
At Christmas, having already begun to incorporate the pastels and crazy angles of the California aesthetic into her own work, Tenazas made good on her promise to visit her aunt in Michigan. While there, she stopped by Cranbrook to show her new portfolio to Katherine McCoy, the longtime co-chair of the design department, who accepted Tenazas on the spot. As a mid-year transfer student, Tenazas was unprepared for how alienated she would feel from her peers—they'd had a semester to form bonds, while she was a foreign interloper, one with a free-flowing, no-grid, California style that was light years away from the Swiss-derived black-and-white type-and-stripe aesthetic the other students were practicing.
But her work anticipated the direction that graphic design—at Cranbrook and more broadly—was headed, and soon fellow students were coming to her for feedback on their design work. The experience gave her confidence that she could always rely on her natural ability regardless of her surroundings, an insight that would prove useful in pursuing client work. “There's a fortune cookie that says, 'The world is always ready to welcome talent with open arms,'” she says. “My talent is portable. I have it in me and can carry it wherever I go.”
Cranbrook's rigor and deep emphasis on design history benefitted Tenazas, helping her make better use of the creative toolkit she'd begun to develop in California. After graduation, she headed to New York. She thought she'd find a job immediately, but it was the height of the early-1980s recession, so instead she spent five months cold-calling companies and pounding the pavement, portfolio in hand, before finally landing a job at the fledgling firm Harmon Kemp. There she first made a name for herself with ambitious, production-intensive projects for paper companies.
After a few years, California called her back. Though he teased her for having been “corrupted” by Cranbrook, Vanderbyl asked her to join the CCA faculty. After teaching in an adjunct capacity for 15 years, she was asked to develop a graduate program in design, she became its founding chair and developed an interdisciplinary program meant to bridge theory and practice—not unlike her paired experiences at CCA and Cranbrook—while emphasizing the importance of dialogue with the viewer. “Design is a way of looking at the world,” she explains. “You produce an artifact or create a system with a set of conditions, an infrastructure or an apparatus where you've done half the equation and you leave the rest for whoever wants to participate.”
Those very principles guide her client work for Tenazas Design, which she founded in 1985, soon after moving back west. After winning the job to create an identity system for San Francisco's Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, Tenazas responded to a board member's criticism that her early efforts were too “Europeanized” with what she termed a “kinetic identity.” The system used a wide font and big elements that could be filled with patterns from different exhibitions; it didn't have one fixed logo, but rather a number of different incarnations for different applications, from letterhead to envelopes to signage. “It's a palette,” she explains, “a kit of parts.”
In all of her work, including identity systems, posters, brochures and books, she tries to invite others into the design, to make the work collaborative rather than claiming sole ownership. This generous approach eventually earned her a National Design Award in Communications Design from the Smithsonian Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum in 2002. And since so much of it was for Bay Area arts and education institutions—not just Yerba Buena, but also the Stanford University Museum of Art, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the Pacific Film Archive, the San Francisco International Airport—the award emphasized her connection to California, as did her tenure from 1996 to 1998 as AIGA's first-ever West Coast president.
But once again the state couldn't hold her. She and her husband, Richard Barnes, an artist and photographer, spent 2005 in Italy with their two young sons when Barnes won a fellowship at the American Academy in Rome. After that they decided to return to New York. Now, she teaches at Parsons the New School for Design, where she is developing a graduate-level, multidisciplinary track within the existing MFA Design and Technology program that engages theory and communication design methods in critical practice. One idea she seeks to inculcate in students is that of the designer as “cultural nomad”—a concept her own journey has made her uniquely qualified to address. “I see the design process as a continuous accumulation of experience so that one can adapt oneself to whatever context one is thrust into,” she says. “At the base level, we respond to other people's problems. The nomad is able to move from one context to another, one discipline to another, one culture to another, and be seen not necessarily as a native, but as one of them—so that trust is engendered, and that allows the designer to speak in her client's voice without sacrificing her own.”