Louise Sandhaus Interviews Lucille Tenazas: Fellow Series

Lucille Tenazas has been on my radar since my CalArts grad school days in the early 1990s. I recall vividly our MFA class visit to her studio. I was entranced as much by her presence as by her work: Elegant, dignified, a refined energy, with a graceful intelligence and presence. To this day she remains a valued friend and colleague… and I remain intrigued. So, I was particularly delighted when she asked me to do this interview with her.

The other reason I was particularly gratified by the invitation was the opportunity to dig deeper into a few obsessions that converge in Lucille’s life, work, and contributions to graphic design: What is the innate quality that drives a young person towards design rather than art or science or cooking or whatever?; How were people educated as designers in the 1970s and, in particular, how were they educated outside the west—as well as how far the tentacles of European design reached into the colonized world?; What ideas and influences shaped design education in California; and, of course, most intriguing of all for me as an all-things-California obsessive, What are the qualities of work that define California design?

These questions and Lucille’s responses to them were discussed during a recorded interview. Following was much back and forth to clarify the questions and responses. Hopefully, the questions are satisfyingly answered. At least it’s a beginning.


Louise Sandhaus: What was your first awareness of graphic design? It probably wasn’t called “graphic design” but using words and images to communicate. For many I’ve heard this first awareness was doodling expressively with letterforms. What was it for you?

Lucille Tenazas: Even as a child, I was always interested in art and somehow knew that I had a natural talent for drawing. I was also very good with calligraphy so my introduction to lettering and letterforms started early. When I was in grade school there was always a student whose job it was to write the inspirational quote for the week on the blackboard. I was always selected to do this task. So, calligraphy, if you will, was my introduction to graphic design.

LS: Did you get training in calligraphy?

LT: Not formally, but I used Speedball pens to do calligraphy. I used lettering books for reference—those Dover books. They were everywhere in the library so I would look at them.

LS: Were there other projects that you recall doing as you were growing up that would be considered graphic design?

LT: By the seventh grade I was involved in various school projects such as designing the school annual and throughout high school, I served as art director in several extra-curricular activities like the literary journal and yearbook. I was also president of the Art Club.

LT: One particular project that I did in freshman year of high school stands out because it involved the design of a multi-page journal, complete with section openings and a design system of sorts. In the Philippines, we had something in high school called a “slum book.” It was a little notebook that you handed out to your close friends wherein they can write their likes, dislikes, favorite activities, hobbies, etc. In a way, it was a precursor to what would become Facebook.”

LT: I had forgotten about this project until about 20 years ago when I was still living in San Francisco, the classmate who had asked me to create this book reconnected with me and revealed that she had come across this journal from many years back. She brought the book with her when she came to visit family in California. I was just so blown away. I said, "Nina, I had no idea...” and she said to me “I know that we were not really that close and you were not in my circle of friends, but now that we're in our 50s I just really appreciate what you had done."

“Slum book” done by Tenazas during her freshman year high school, 1968


Louise Sandhaus: Did you study graphic design formally when you got to college?

Lucille Tenazas: I was educated in the Philippines at the College of the Holy Spirit in Manila where I received a BFA in Fine Arts, with a major in Advertising Art, because it was the closest to what graphic designers did. At the time there was no program in the country that offered Design per se. Even the terms “graphic design” or “communication design” didn’t exist. Everybody either majored in advertising, interior design, or fine arts.

LS: This wasn’t just the case in the Philippines. Few schools in the U.S. offered programs in graphic design at that time either. I also studied advertising design in the early 1970s.

LS: What was it was like to study advertising at this college?

LT: The college then was known for a high standard of educating women in the humanities, sciences, business, education, as well as music, arts and nutrition. I benefited from a good foundation in the humanities and liberal arts. The fine arts program provided a range of drawing and art courses that included photography and ceramics. Advertising classes covered copywriting, layout, poster design, even business correspondence! Our capstone project was to design a complete identity redesign for a product or entity of our choice which was exhibited in a public venue in Manila.


Louise Sandhaus: How did you end up in San Francisco?

Lucille Tenazas: After working in Manila for 3 years as a graphic designer, a generous aunt who was living in the United State offered me the opportunity to come here to do postgraduate studies.

LS: This was your second shot at studies in an American school—is that right? You had already applied to quite a few graphic design MFA programs and had been rejected?

LT: I finally got to the United States from the Philippines in 1979. For a couple of years before then, I had been applying to American schools hoping to pursue an MFA in Graphic Design. I sent my slide portfolio to various programs but those efforts did not result in any positive responses. I was rejected by every graduate school that I had applied to from Manila. I applied to Cranbrook and was rejected twice.

LT: After these disappointing outcomes, I decided to forego my efforts to go to graduate school. When my aunt reached out to me I thought that if my portfolio wouldn’t get me into a graduate program, then I might just get a second undergrad degree since all that was required to apply for these programs was a transcript. I researched brochures at the USIA (US Information Service) library in Manila and saw a brochure for a summer intensive at CCAC [California College of Arts and Crafts], applied, and was accepted. And that was how I came to arrive in San Francisco in June 1979.

LS: When you arrived in the late 70s California was THE hot place for graphic design.

LT: I didn't know it then, but designers like April Greiman and Jayme Odgers in Los Angeles and “The Michaels” [Michael Cronan, Michael Manwaring, and Michael Vanderbyl] in northern California were getting a lot of attention. I was totally oblivious to those design currents and I was just excited to be halfway around the world in a new and exciting environment. That my visa to come to the U.S. was from applying to CCAC and that the classes I signed up for were taught by Michael Vanderbyl and Michael Manwaring was a total fluke.

LS: What happened when you landed in San Francisco?

LT: I was initially intimidated by being in the classes at CCAC because I was a returning student, having already worked in Manila for 3 years. I worked hard and eventually found the confidence to articulate my ideas and be open to feedback and critique. I stayed on for the fall and during that semester Michael Manwaring offered me an internship for the spring. I told him that I was just going to visit my aunt in Michigan for Christmas and then I’d be back.

LS: But you didn’t go back. At least not then. So why Michigan and what happened when you got there?

LT: My Auntie Nena—the one paying for my education in San Francisco—lived in Michigan with her family, in a city coincidentally 10 minutes from Cranbrook. I decided to bring my portfolio, which consisted of work I had done since my arrival 6 months before in San Francisco, to show her what I’d been doing.

LS: And you ended up showing that portfolio to Kathy McCoy, then the co-Chair with her husband Michael McCoy of the 2-D and 3-D Design Programs at Cranbrook… and the rest is history. How did you know about Cranbrook?

LT: I had heard of Cranbrook Academy of Art from a friend who happened to be studying for her MFA in Metalsmithing there. She was sent there on a graduate scholarship by Design Center Philippines, a government agency created by then First Lady, Imelda Marcos in the early 70s. The mission of Design Center was to rethink the design of Philippine craft so that it was much more acceptable in the West. I kept in touch with my friend Tessy and when I told her that I was visiting my aunt in Michigan she encouraged me to get in touch with Kathy McCoy and show her my portfolio. I was not keen on the prospect of meeting Kathy since, if you recall, I had already been rejected twice before when I had applied from the Philippines.

LS: So what happened when you were in Michigan that shifted fate for you?

LT: Between Christmas and New Year’s it seemed there was nobody around at Cranbrook, but my aunt suggested that I call Cranbrook to see if by chance someone was there. I called Kathy McCoy and she actually answered. I introduced myself by saying "I don't know if you remember me, but I applied a couple of years ago. I'm from the Philippines and I now live in San Francisco, studying design at CCAC. I have my portfolio and I was wondering if I could meet with you?" And she says yes.

LT: I visited her at her studio at Cranbrook and showed her my work. Then she said, "This is all work you did in San Francisco?" and said "you know, I don't really accept students in the middle of the semester, but we have a spot that's available and, if you want to stay, you can have it."

LS: That’s a pretty impressive turnaround from having been rejected twice. So that time at CCAC really made a big difference. What happened when your aunt picked you up after your meeting with Kathy?

LT: She asks me about the interview, and I said, "well, I was offered a spot." And she says, oh perfect, then you don't have to go back to San Francisco.

LS: So that’s the back story to how you began your studies at Cranbrook mid-term, January 1980!

LS: After completing graduate studies at Cranbrook you went to New York. How did that come about?

LT: During the summers while I was at Cranbrook I had jobs in New York—one year at a small package design studio. The following year I was a design intern at the American Stock Exchange. I graduated in December 1981 and there was no question that I would go back to New York. There we so many east coast connections through the McCoy’s— including Massimo and Lella Vignelli and the partners at Chermayeff and Geismar—design firms we had visited during our annual fall field trips. I felt all these connections would help lead to a job.

LS: When did you finally go back to San Francisco and what brought you there?

LT: In 1984 Michael Vanderbyl invited me to give a talk CCAC. I found out later that in the intervening years after I had graduated from Cranbrook and was working in New York, that my former teachers hoped I would return to San Francisco and teach. In New York I had been working for a small studio called Harmon Kemp and doing a lot of good work which also garnered awards in design competitions and publications like ID magazine. As it turns out, my lecture at CCAC was effectively a “job talk” without my knowing it.

LS: So what happened?

LT: When I returned to New York I was formally offered the teaching job by Michael. [Vanderbyl]. I was flattered by the offer but was not ready to leave New York. It was very agonizing. In the end, Michael Manwaring said to me, "You know Lucille, you just have to make a decision and things work themselves out." Six months later, in June of 1985, I returned to California.

LS: Was this for a full-time teaching position?

LT: No, it was for an adjunct position. Michael [Vanderbyl] told me that I would start with a couple of summer classes, then in subsequent semesters I would start teaching studio classes in graphic design and typography. He also assured me of freelance work to get started with my studio practice. He kept his promise by hiring me to collaborate with him on the pattern designs for the launch of Esprit’s Bed and Bath line, as well as projects that were too small for his office.

LS: Esprit Bed and Bath patterns! Those were such icons of the 1980s. I hung on to my Esprit sheets and towels until they were in shreds.


Louise Sandhaus: What do you think you achieved as an educator in San Francisco?

Lucille Tenazas: When I was at Cranbrook, I started to pay attention to vernacular typography, which at the time was a no-no as it was outside of the Academy, so to speak. What Kathy McCoy taught me was a turning point. I realized you can find meaning in mundane things. That also became a guiding principle for me as an educator.

LS: What do you mean by “mundane things” and how did this impact your teaching?

LT: When I started teaching, my approach was to replicate a professional situation in the classroom by giving projects that a studio might undertake—like designing book covers or a calendar of events for museums. My teaching role was more like being an art director working with project parameters. After two years of teaching, I realized that I could no longer rely on the traditional conventions of projects. I had some students who were older than me, or who were the same age, and had interesting life experiences. I started to think about how I could have them express design ideas informed by their personal history—using a subjective lens, rather than the conventional more objective one.

LS: Not that I think you borrowed from her or even knew about it at the time, but this was also how Sheila Levrant de Bretteville approached teaching graphic design in the Women’s Design Program at CalArts in the early 1970s. Something was in the air. Something that began to take shape as “the underground matriarchy” that upended the European model of modernist design education. But I’m sure this wasn’t easy and there was some push-back.

LT: Teal Triggs in an article she wrote in Eye magazine asked me something like "how can you reconcile the fact that you're letting your students express themselves and still be a designer when really the designer puts their voice in the background so that their clients' voice predominates.”

LT: I didn't know it at the time, but I was letting my students think of design as an exercise in ethnographic research, among other things. I was really interested in the people, places, and things surrounding us and how we acclimate ourselves in a new environment—mirroring my personal travel trajectory. Then I started to equate this approach with having a design project where you are not the expert in the subject matter that you are going to be communicating and so you have to become careful observer.

LS: In 2000, you launched and became head of a new graduate graphic design program at CCAC. What was that program about?

LT: At an AIGA conference where I presented this new program, I remember being challenged: There are existing programs all over the country, so how is yours different, and what is your approach? I said something about a philosophical approach where personal voice drives the work and that whole question came up about how you reconcile the fact that design is about a client’s needs. But because I had experienced this alternative way of working successfully for myself, I wanted to incorporate it pedagogically as a way to respond to a design problem. In my experience, clients would look at the work I’d done and say, "Well, this is as much about you as it is about us. But we know you're responding to our issue here and see that there is something about your solution that also offers a more universal understanding."

LS: How was this program publicly described and what response did you receive?

LT: The program was characterized as having an interdisciplinary focus bridging theory and practice, with a 4-prong approach that addressed form-making, writing, teaching, and leadership. I wanted to move beyond the traditional aspects of design education as pure studio practice to the development of personal voice as a filter in addressing communication design issues. This approach resonated with designers who were thinking of going to graduate school since the year we announced the program we received over 90 applications for an entering cohort of 12-15 students.


Louise Sanhaus: I'm curious whether you see yourself as a California designer? I mention you in the “California Girls” diagram in my book, Earthquakes, Mudslides, Fires & Riots: California and Graphic Design 1936-1986, because aside from your 20 years of professional practice here, I felt there was an ethos to your work that I define as “Californian”—a quest for the new that is unbound from the past and a spirit of risk-taking, to put it simply. But, how do you see yourself?

Lucille Tenazas: When I was working at Harmon Kemp in New York, I was given extraordinary freedom to design and I evolved my thinking there. The situation presented a lot of opportunity for risk-taking and doing more experimental work. With my move to California, I was uncertain as to whether I would be able to replicate on my own the work that came out of that freedom. But San Francisco turned out to be really fertile ground and what I had done in New York had become the foundation that I built on. At that time small studios in San Francisco could thrive. If you were a one-person studio you could certainly do it and I did.

LS: You're saying that in 1980s San Francisco there were enough clients, a network of hospitable people, and affordable workspaces that enabled a small design studio to thrive—in your case, Tenazas Design?

LT: Yes. I managed to cobble it together. I was living in this tiny studio apartment and somehow I managed to get by with my adjunct teaching position at CCAC and freelance projects here and there. Eventually, I was presented with bigger projects and I made a living of it.

LS: Where did the work come from?

LT: People were generous with handing work over to me. I had two long-term projects through Michael Vanderbyl’s recommendation. The rest was through word of mouth. But, also, in San Francisco, design projects for the city that were awarded from RFPs (Request for Proposals) specifically targeted to women- and/or minority-owned businesses. I checked both criteria and so I got several projects. Through the San Francisco Redevelopment Agency, I was selected to design the initial identity for the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. I also designed the annual report for SFO, the San Francisco Airport, for two consecutive years. Through collaborative relationships with other architecture and urban planning firms, I was brought in to design the Master Plan documents for the Port of San Francisco, Hunters Point and Mission Bay, anchored by UCSF which is still undergoing several stages of development and construction.

LS: Can you say more about how being in California informed your work?

LT: One of the things that was pivotal to my work in California was the critical conversations about my hybrid use of typography and image borne out of my relationship with [the photographer and now husband] Richard [Barnes]. Early on in our relationship, he posed questions about my facility and ease with the complexity and overlaying of information, of typography and images—this concert of collage approach that I had. It was very easy for me, I loved doing it. In referencing his minimalist approach to his photographic subjects, I started to think more about how a singular image can have meaning on its own without having to overlay it with additional information—a conceptual layering if you will. It made me very aware of looking at typography in a more respectful way. Wordplay became much more of a serious consideration.

LS: What do you mean by “wordplay”?

LT: I started to think "what is my connection with language and why am I looking at this beyond just a formal exercise?" That was when I started to think about being raised bilingual. Language is central to my work because I learned English in the Philippines within a strict formal context, trained to speak it correctly at school while growing up in a multilingual household with voices speaking Spanish, Tagalog (the national language) and one of several provincial dialects. By questioning the authority of language and the relativity of meaning, I wanted to free myself of the colonial nature of my relationship with the English language—I wanted to make it my own. This approach to using language became a hallmark of my work and it began to evolve in California—although the groundwork for this kind of linguistic breakdown probably started at Cranbrook. But it was this work that made me stand apart from other colleagues in California.

LS: When Aaron Betsky became curator of architecture and design at SF MoMA in 1995, he brought greater esteem and recognition to graphic design—in particular to design produced in San Francisco and California. Before then, local design was mostly considered inconsequential. This was an important turning point for design being done outside New York. You were among a handful of designers to whom Betsky paid particular attention. What were shows curated by Betsky that included your work?

LT: My connection with Aaron goes back to 1995 when he was hired by SFMOMA. The following year, he curated my first solo exhibition consisting of works from SFMOMA's permanent collection. SFMOMA then was one of the few museums in the country that had a design and architecture curator. One of the pieces included in the show was a book whose cover I had designed, The Body: Photographs of the Human Form. The funny thing was that I had to handle it with gloves since it had been accessioned to the museum, but ironically, the book was being sold in the museum shop as well and of course being touched and handled.

LS: What do you think Aaron saw in your work that he wanted the museum-going public to know about graphic design?

LT: I believe it was the role my design work played in our understanding of cultural behavior and understanding of the world. In Aaron’s curatorial statement he said, “The work assembled here shows Lucille Tenazas’s ability to turn our multicultural, multi-lingual, and multi-functional world of information into a coherent physical object that has the strange effect of telling us as much about our own imagination as it does about the idea being communicated.”


Louise Sandhaus: I’d like to know more about your involvement with AIGA SF, then as national board member, and finally as president of the AIGA national board. How did you first get involved with AIGA?

Lucille Tenazas: I was aware of AIGA when I was in New York but I wasn't a member. When I arrived in San Francisco, Linda Hinrichs, who was the AIGA SF president then asked to me be vice-president of events. It was a great opportunity to invite people like my former mentor, Kathy McCoy, who gave a lecture on Dutch Graphic Design, Ralph Caplan, and Steven Heller. I also co-chaired an international Lecture Series entitled “Sublime Subversives” that was held at SFMOMA.

LS: It’s hard to fully grasp in this networked world of today when everything and everyone is at our fingertips, the significance these speakers would have had on broadening and expanding the conversation about design. Did your programming and its visibility have any impact on your becoming the president of the AIGA national board?

LT: Because of the visibility of the chapter events, I was invited to become a member of the AIGA national board. Looking back on it now, the events I organized in the local chapter prepared me to look beyond the discipline of design to encompass practitioners in the arts, music, and dance. I remember inviting speakers who were non-designers, who reflected on similarities with the creative process in the own practice that were relevant to a design audience. In 1996, the AIGA hired a new Executive Director, Ric Grefe, who was interested in expanding the design organization’s purview with regards to its national leadership. Up until then, the AIGA presidents were exclusively from New York continuing its long-standing 80-year tradition. With local chapters gaining a strong voice and expanding rapidly, Ric felt it was time to begin the process of de-centralizing the national leadership.

LS: Aside from breaking the tradition of east coast-only AIGA presidents, what else do you believe was the biggest impact or influence you had on the organization during your tenure as president?

LT: Yes, I was the first AIGA president outside of New York in its 80-year history, but I was also only the second woman, after Nancye Green. So, both those characteristics alone made an impact. The fact that I came from the Philippines and was interested in exploring culture from many vantage points was probably my biggest influence. This was my inspiration for establishing the theme of the national conference held in New Orleans in 1997 entitled, “The Culture of Design, the Design of Culture.” AIGA hired Janet Abrams to plan the programming and as national president my mandate for her was to look at New Orleans as a unique American city and to the ethos that contributed to it. Before that, the city where the conferences took place didn't matter. After New Orleans, future conferences were planned around the unique offerings of the city so that the attendees were immersed not just in the culture of design but more importantly, in the culture of the city where it was being held.

LS: In closing, is there an accomplishment or contribution to date of which you are most proud… and what do you still want to achieve?

LT: After our sojourn in Rome from 2005-06, where my husband was a fellow of the American Academy, we opted to continue the adventure and move to New York with our two sons. In a way, my life came full circle—leaving NY in 1985 and then returning 20 years later in 2006. This time, I returned with no clear path as to what I would do. I had closed my office in San Francisco and I did not necessarily welcome teaching again. So the field was clear for me to explore! But as luck and timing would have it, Parsons had a position open for a tenure-track faculty position with the added responsibility of starting a graduate program in Communication Design. I have been there now for 10 years. Who would have thought that one would have a second opportunity to craft a design program in a way that is relevant to how the field has evolved? In my role as Associate Dean in the School of Art, Media and Technology that encompasses 11 programs, I am involved in faculty development and my main responsibility is to serve as a mentor to over 50 full-time faculty. In the process, I am engaged with the work of my colleagues and am constantly refining my thinking in disciplines outside of design. These interactions have been enriching and have impacted my work both as a designer and as an educator.

My experience as an older designer has been eye-opening for my students and my colleagues. Every year, I get older but my students are always 20 years old. The age chasm widens between me and my students so my challenge has always been to maintain relevance in their student life that will sustain them beyond their time at school. I believe that my relationships with my clients has expanded what design does, what communication design is about, what graphic design is about. With every step of the way, there were opportunities that I took advantage of. Because I am inherently a hospitable person, I welcome the opportunity for others to interact with me so I can learn from them. I keep the conversation open.

Louise Sandhaus is the former program director and current faculty in the Graphic Design Program at California Institute of the Arts (CalArts). Her book, Earthquakes, Mudslides, Fires and Riots: California and Graphic Design 1936-1986, published in late 2014 by Metropolis Books and Thames & Hudson, received international laudatory attention including the Palm D’argent from 2015 The International Art Book and Film Festival (FILAF) and was included in AIGA/Design Observer’s 2014 50 Books|50 Covers selection. Her second book, A Colorful Life: Gere Kavanaugh, Designer, co-written and designed with Kat Catmur, will be published April 2019 by Princeton Architectural Press. She is currently working on Making History, a national initiative to preserve graphic design history through a crowd-sourced effort —the subject of her 2018 TEDx UCLA talk, “Many Images; Many Possibilities.” Louise's work, writing, and writing about her work have appeared in numerous publications and her work is in the permanent collection of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and the Bibliothèque Nationale de France, Paris. Louise is a Letterform Archive board member, former AIGA board member, and former Chair of the AIGA Design Educators Community steering committee.