Lucille Tenazas is a Class of Her Own
adobo magazine, July 23, 2018 | 11:10am

Interview and Words by Mikhail Lecaros
Photos of artwork courtesy of Lucille Tenazas

When it comes to the work of Lucille Tenazas, one is immediately stricken by the precise manner that the designer’s chosen elements convey information while avoiding the tendency towards over-embellishment that despoil many a contemporary work. Meticulous allocation of visual real estate notwithstanding, the voice and – more importantly – the intelligence behind each piece ring true and clear, communicating the intended message (and, by extension, the artist) more effectively than any number of superfluities.

Given the thought that must have gone into some of her pieces and the deftness of their execution, it is no surprise that Tenazas is at the top of her game. As a graphic designer, Tenazas has done work for clients as diverse as the San Francisco International Airport, Rizzoli International, the Neue Galerie Museum for German and Austrian Art, and a number of non-profit organizations and institutions. Highly-sought as an educator, Tenazas regularly gives design talks, seminars and workshops all over the world, in addition to being the Henry Wolf Professor in the School of Art, Media and Technology at Parsons The New School for Design.

With 30 years under her belt and a number of active projects going on at any given time, Tenazas is one practitioner who shows no signs of slowing down. Of course, the artist herself is amused by the notion that designing is the only thing people expect her to be up to all day long.

“They have this perception that I don’t have a life outside of design,” she laughs. “They think that that’s all I do, I live, breathe, eat design, I mean I’m serious about what I do but that doesn’t preclude me living my life and enjoying other parts of my life. Sometimes they’re surprised that I have kids, that I’m married…maybe the seriousness with which I view my work makes some people think that I’m a workaholic, but I’m not!”

Of course, seeing as Tenazas is the recipient of accolades like the American Institute of Graphic Arts (AIGA) Medal in 2013 and the National Design Award in Communications Design from the Smithsonian Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum in 2002, one could be forgiven for thinking that it was mere “seriousness” that got her to where she is today, but that would only be half the picture.

Simply put, any artist is so much more than the mere sum of their works and, as adobo was privileged to find out, Tenazas is no exception, proving every bit as fascinatingly multifaceted – if not more so – than any single design. 

The daughter of a civil engineer father and a mother who taught high school social studies, Tenazas grew up in the Philippines, attending the College of the Holy Spirit from kindergarten to college. The second of six children, Tenazas’ creativity was fostered from an early age by her parents. Despite having the conventional expectations of wanting their daughter to be a lawyer or doctor (“You know, it would be great if there was an appendage to your name, like ‘Atty.’ or ‘Dr.’!”), they supported her in her artistic pursuits.

Unfortunately, Tenazas’ father would pass away when she was 16 years old, meaning he never saw the heights that his daughter eventually reached with her talents. Tenazas started small, joining school and local publications’ competitions, slowly gaining a reputation in her circles for her abilities.

[From Top to Bottom] Animal Logic: Richard Barnes, 2009 Book Design for Princeton Architectural Press; Casa Alta: An Andalusian Paradise, 2013 Book Design for Princeton Architectural Press

ADOBO How did your parents express their support for your art?

TENAZAS My father would just sit and watch, he’d be drinking his beer and he would wait for my mother because she always got home a little later from her teaching – around 7 or 8pm. And so we (the kids) would have had dinner while he was waiting for my mother. And the table would be cleared and I would then lay all my art supplies on the table but I think what was interesting to me was that he would always sit by me. He never would question, or whatever. He would always just sit there and watch what I was doing and his presence was enough of an encouragement. Every once in a while, he would lean over and say “why did you use red for this?” or whatever, and I didn’t even mind it – I just went “I like it. I like making it this way.” So anyway, I think that the atmosphere that I had at home, the encouragement of my parents, albeit not overt, by not so much putting their foot down, or making it into a situation where “you have to do this, or else!”, and then at school that was a continuation because I was held to a certain kind of level of, you know. I was the class artist, I would do lettering for diplomas or certificates or whatever. So my track, in a way, was pre-determined for me.

ADOBO So they never tried to change your mind?

TENAZAS My father was always planting seeds in terms of…well, you know how it is in our culture, people think that the arts is not really a legitimate profession. You needed to be either a doctor, a lawyer to make money. And you know, who are you to question this? I never said anything because of course we are in a culture where the parents are an authoritarian relationship so I just quietly plodded along. But I think that at a certain point your parents can no longer question or dissuade you or do anything other than support you. And so I think, in a way, my parents were of that thinking that ‘she cannot be swayed, so we might as well just sort of follow what she’s doing.’

ADOBO Tell us about when you realized there was a living to be made from your designs.

TENAZAS When I was in Holy Spirit, there were always these on-the-spot painting competitions and it was always held at UST and I participated in that for maybe two-three years in a row. The first few years I was an honorable mention but when I was in my senior year, I was one of four winners of the top prize. My brother, who was at UST at the time, was hovering around. When my name was called, they gave me this envelope with cash – 400 pesos! We were so excited, my brother and I, that we took a cab home, instead of taking the bus on Espana. So we took a cab, and my Mom says, when we get home, “how did it go?” And I said, “Well, you know, I did my best”, and she saw from my face that I was not happy. Then I turned around and I handed her the fat envelope! It was something I did all by myself in a short amount of time in very constrained circumstances. It was like (professional) design – there was a deadline, there was a theme, there was a project brief, whatever it is, it conforms to all these things that prepared me to actually enter the profession, and then be rewarded for it at the end of the day. So I’ve saved that envelope. I just found it – my sister had them all in one place and I’m bringing it back to the States. It brings me back to how I was. When I look back at my family albums – what I was doing then and how things like this prepared me to be at this stage of my work in my life, I cannot take that lightly.

ADOBO We understand that you worked in a pharmaceutical company before you decided to go to the States to study. What was that like?

TENAZAS I had this full time job at Smith Kline in Cainta for three years. That was the work I submitted when I was applying to graduate school in the States. And I didn’t get accepted because it was a narrow body of work. I mean, you know, vitamin labels, exhibits for medical conventions, that kind of thing. Within that context, it was actually quite good, but taken out, it didn’t stand on its own. So I think for me, my going to graduate school in the States was one of those kinds of seminal points because what it gave me was not just to be better at what I did but also to be a better thinker. So suddenly you were confronted with “It’s not enough that your work looks good. It’s not enough that it’s pretty, that the colors are right, typography’s right.” When I look back on my earlier work, the concept was not really critical. It was more about making things look good and putting things together in a very interesting way but when you get deeper into it, you know, what does it really mean? And I guess at the time, the people who saw my work didn’t ask those questions anyway. And in the Philippines, that’s what I think is missing. That’s why I’m curious about how people really work in a context like in the Philippines. Because advertising, to me, really deals with, I mean you can’t help it; sometimes it’s the lowest common denominator. You’re supposed to sell something at all costs. So you have to compromise these high ideals of making something look too sophisticated or too elitist. This is what I’m interested to know: At what point or at what level do people have to, you know, dumb down the work? It’s much more common than not, actually, and It’s true anywhere.

Neue Galerie New York Museum for German and Austrian Art Design Shop Catalogue

ADOBO You’ve mentioned being a collaborative partner rather than a hired gun when it comes to your design work. How did that come about?

TENAZAS In high school, I was involved with the school annual, the school paper. I was always the art director. I was always involved with the editor. I think what was really a great experience for me was that my relationship with the editor and writing, specifically, was cemented in that the editor trusted in my contributions – it wasn’t just telling me to make it fit or just design something or make the artwork or whatever…I was put on equal footing, if you will. I’m not a writer, per se, but I took particular interest in the content. So eventually when I started working professionally and looking at my work, I began realizing, why am I involved in books? Why am I designing books? I’ve worked with authors and they’re sometimes not prepared to confront a designer who actually pays particular attention to the content, but eventually, I started working on projects where people would come to me and they’d say “We don’t know what the content is. I know it’s gonna be about this, but what do you think? You’re the designer. Let’s collaborate on it” even before the content is generated. And so, that I think is really a good role. I respect writing. I’m really interested in it, you know, because my work is very linguistic. When people do connect with me, it’s not about me saying “I’m the designer and you’re not”. I’m more interested in like “You’re the writer, I want to learn from your approach. I want you to see me on an equal footing.” And I think as soon as you establish that relationship, there is a lot of respect and it moves on to integrity and freedom to do what you want to do for them because they know that you’re being very thoughtful about their work.

ADOBO How do you deal with difficult clients?

TENAZAS They could profess they love you, they love your work, and I’m thinking, “What is your gut feeling, Lucille”? Here’s my bottom line: If I like the person and I can actually have an intelligent conversation with him having lunch, not even work, just like normal conversation with another human being and I can actually see myself sitting in front of them having a good conversation, I would take them on. But if there is some, I mean you know, there are people who rub you the wrong way or they’re aggressive, I’m not going to put myself through this. It’s just more trouble than it’s worth, so why do it? So at that point, you just trust your instincts. I’m very patient – I’m not an imperious person. I sort of look at the situation and just say, “You know, I want to be able to do a good job on this. I want this to be a project that we’re both happy with.” And they respect you for that. They do see your commitment. So this is what I’m saying. To me, my best weapon, in any relationship, in any of my projects, is that I’m very enthusiastic about my work and what I can do for others. Even if they’re just starting, they’re just kind of like kicking the tires and thinking “now, is this the kind of person we want to work with?” I’m doing the same thing too. I want them to think. People think that okay, you’re hiring me and I’m at your mercy? I mean, I have every opportunity to judge them in the same way that they’re judging me. I think when people see themselves as being an important part of the process, it’s great – it’s gratifying for them. They didn’t have to go to design school, but I respect their judgment. I can guide them. I can just say: “Now this is what I’m showing you. Observe this, and take a look at this. Tell me what this adds up to”. I encourage them. It’s not like castigating them, like “you don’t know anything”. Smart people, and again, this is my sense, smart people – they don’t feel threatened. They know they’ve arrived at what they’ve done because they’ve earned it, so they can admire and respect equally smart people who are accomplished. There’s no insecurity involved, there’s no need to be NUMBER ONE all the time.

ADOBO The funny thing is, if the client really does know everything and has all the answers, then what does he need you for?

TENAZAS Well, it’s really a kind of very sensitive situation there in telling them that they need to listen to you because you’re good. At the same time though, you have to acknowledge inside you that you are good. If your client has a very good sense of gauging what is good and what is not good, what’s mediocre and what’s high quality, I mean there are a lot of mediocre people, ...there’s more of them actually. You have to go through the riff raff. You plow through that. And then there are a few people up there who are at the top of their game and they are very few and far between. I think that it’s a matter of arriving at an equal footing with these people so that they do give you the respect. I just want to give you an example. When I was in the Philippines last year, I did a master class at the Ayala Museum, and there was this one guy who was asking me the same question, like you: “You know, I work for this ad agency and I really feel that we’re at the bottom of the totem pole here. We’re really kind of just service providers.” You know, these are the guys who are not really designers – account executives, I guess that’s the term. And so they now have to present the ideas to the client, right? And so this guy says, “Now I have to go back to work and just sort of have to battle it up with this guy, yet again.” I understood what he was going through but I didn’t know the context. All I could tell him was “You really have to defend why it is. Say it without any kind of anxiety, without any kind of tension and say, you know, let me just clearly state what this is about.” A rational response. And I saw him and he looked defeated. Poor guy. But anyway, on the last day of the class, final presentation, he does his presentation and we have a reception/ cocktails, picture taking, etc. This guy walks over to me and he said, “I just want to tell you that when we talked that first day, I went back to my office, remember?” And I said, “Yeah, I know.” And he said, “Yeah, and I just stood my ground and I talked with this account executive and blah blah blah, whatever I had to say, and he was just kind of taken aback and it’s kind of interesting because he went “Tell me what you have in mind.” And I was, wow, that was a quick turnaround! It’s not the kind of thing that you change overnight. But something must have happened to this guy for him to actually assess a situation and look at where he stood, thought about what I said, or what he felt he got from the class and then just did it! So I was quite impressed.

San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) Architecture Lecture Announcements, various years. Announcements for a series of lectures organized by the American Institute of Architects (AIA)

ADOBO It must have made you feel good at some level, to have given him his moment of clarity. Do you get that feeling from teaching?

TENAZAS (laughs) This happens a lot to me. I was giving a lecture many years ago in Miami and there was a guy who picked me up from the airport, and it was all very cursory. And he dropped me off, and that was it. End of the story. I see him again, years later, at some design conference, and he walks up to me and said, “My life changed after that conversation.” Maybe I was giving some advice, I don’t even remember. I was just asking questions about where he stood in his work, in his life, in his relationship, whatever, and maybe that triggered something. I planted a seed. It didn’t have to be something that was a profound thing, but it was profound for him. So as a teacher, and I have been teaching now for over 30 years, it happens to me that when my students have me, they get intimidated, they may get “oh, she has high standards” or “she’s just a little too critical” or whatever, and some of them don’t perform as well, some of them don’t get it. But I realize many years later, maybe 10 years later, I would get a phone call or get an email and they would say “you may not remember me but I was one of your students in 19-blah blah blah, but I have always remembered what you said.” So I know that it’s not an immediate feedback of what I have done or of what I have maybe planted a seed on.

ADOBO Okay, on that note, do you remember the first class that you ever taught?

TENAZAS The first class I taught was actually at Holy Spirit, when I was a senior in the Fine Arts Dept., in Advertising; One of the nuns, was being sent on a scholarship to Japan and she needed somebody she trusted to take over the three classes that she was gonna leave behind. So she assigns us to handle the courses – and we hadn’t even graduated! I was flattered that she handpicked the three of us and that she assigned me the most difficult one because it was theoretical – Aesthetics – and so I just said, “Yeah, I’ll do it.” So I show up months later, no longer in uniform and I’m teaching the class below me, who of course knew me because I was the president of the Fine Arts Organization. And so I showed up and they greeted me, and say, “Oh, hey, hi, Lucille! You’ve graduated, congratulations! Do you know who our teacher is?” I said, “Well, actually, it’s me.” We were only a year apart, so that threw them off, but it was a learning experience (laughs)

ADOBO How did you do?

TENAZAS Well, it threw me off, too, because I didn’t think of myself as a teacher and there was only one year separating us, so I thought, how would they see me? How would they regard me? It was a steep learning curve… I mean you know, the lesson plan was there, the syllabus, the curriculum, etc. but … so my first experience was really about catching up. When you’re a student, you could coast through some of that, but as a teacher, you’re supposedly the font of knowledge so I had to really do double work, or triple or quadruple work. So that’s the academic. I did that for three years, before I left for the States. But my first studio class was actually in San Francisco, in the school where I ended up teaching for 20 years, the California College of the Arts.

ADOBO How different was it to teach in California?

TENAZAS So I arrived, and I think my mindset before, as a new teacher, was to kind of replicate a design studio. Okay, I’m the art director – it just so happens that there are students, right – I would give projects as if I had a studio and these were my young designers. But over time, I realized it was a dead end because I was not interested in giving them commercial work. I was more interested in knowing how they thought and sort of mining their own personal interests. So it wasn’t about the client, the client was them. There were a couple of reasons why I changed my way of teaching. 1) I was confronted with returning students who were much older and actually more matured than I was and had more experiences. And so I realized that these were not your typical 18-year old students. Even if I was in my late 20s at the time, it was quite a humbling experience to realize that yes, you are the teacher but this is a journey both of you are on. So you may have had more experience than they have, but they have a lot to give you too. So that’s when I changed my approach.

ADOBO Tell us how this ties in to your concept of the cultural nomad.

TENAZAS The cultural nomad versus the cultural tourist. We all have been tourists at one time or another. Sometimes we act like tourists and sometimes we try to not act like tourists, even if we are. But the idea of what a tourist is and how a tourist responds to a place is really more about superficially gliding through a place. And because there’s a fear of kind of absorbing the place because it’s an unknown quantity whereas a nomad kind of just allows himself to weave in and out of situations and assess, and stand not apart, but try and let himself be absorbed into the situation. And I’d like to think of myself as one. And I tell my students and in my lectures as well, that design is really kind of a mindset, of affecting the mindset of a cultural nomad. Especially because we cross cultures – and I’m not talking geographic cultures. You’re moving among, within, between cultures and you have to be flexible. When I give these kinds of projects, like talk to the person next to you in the bus, the students ask, “Is that a design problem? This has nothing to do with design.” And I say that it has everything to do with design, because beyond you working on whatever website, logo or magazine, whatever, you would have had to establish that relationship first before you’re able to do something and the success of that work is contingent on that relationship that you have with your client.

ADOBO How do you go about forming that relationship?

TENAZAS It’s kind of empathetic, which is a hard word to describe because empathy is really putting yourself in that position and to try and imagine what that is. I ask my students, what’s the difference between sympathy and empathy? And then they say, sympathy involves a kind of grief or some sort of unfortunate situation that one feels that you need to kind of connect with them whereas empathy doesn’t necessarily have to involve that. It just means that I understand what you’re saying but even if I’m not, if my client’s Chinese, I’m not Chinese, what does that mean? How do I connect with them? I have a 25-year old client but their needs are very different from mine, I could be their mother, so what does that mean? So there has got to be some way where there is a common language or a common understanding that we all
connect with and there’s an engagement, and that I think is really the key. Even just a brief conversation, it’s a connection. That, to me, is what empathy is about.

Pistahan Festival, 2013. Pistahan is an annual celebration of Filipino culture and cuisine in San Francisco. It is organized by the Filipino American Arts Exposition (FAAE), a grassroots, non-profit organization that contributes to the artistic and cultural pride of the Filipino American community.

ADOBO What do you tell your students about the love-hate relationship between art and commerce?

TENAZAS I tell them that when you’re young, you don’t have to be choosy and picky because at the beginning, you take on whatever gives you money and you’re saving up. You need to have all these different levels of experiences anyway; it’s not always perfect. But the important thing is for them to know what they are about, what they represent and what their values are. So when they get to the point where they say, “okay, this is not me anymore”, they have to have the courage to say, “I can’t stay here anymore, this is dehumanizing”, because at a certain point it’s gonna be hard to leave. People sometimes do these kinds of things where their five-days-of-the-week job is a drudgery, and then the fun work is on the weekends, right? I just don’t understand that; life is too short to be doing work (that you don’t care for) for the better part of the week. And that’s the majority of people we know and that’s because they have allowed themselves to be led on. They did not put their foot down, they didn’t make a stand at the beginning and say, “this is really about me, this is my life, so why am I doing this?” But for you to arrive at that decision, you would need to really know where you stand, what your values are. I’m not talking about morality here, I’m just talking about a kind of integrity, an identity of what you represent as a person and as a creative human being.

ADOBO In your experience, either in your professional or academic careers, how much did your background play into it? Like your race or gender, did either affect how people perceived you?

TENAZAS I get asked this question. But the thing is, when I arrived in the States, the one thing that made me feel that I may not be as good as they were was the fact that I was older than them. I just thought: Okay, I’ve had a degree already in the Philippines and I’m back in school and so these kids are younger than me. This is a little bit of a humbling situation. And the second issue was that, since I’m from another country, they have been in this educational system for a long time so their work is much more polished (I thought). I never thought of race, I never thought of gender. It was really about two things: My coming from another context and being transplanted to another and trying to see whether my work would out or would stand being seen on the same level. But I just realized: If I can speak English, then there’s no issue. I’m sure I realized I look different, but it didn’t really hit me. I just thought: I could speak English and I could communicate, there shouldn’t be a problem, right? I mean, they understood exactly what I said, I could talk to them, my work was good, so why should there be a problem?

ADOBO Filipinos in other countries tend to have entirely different sets of problems.

TENAZAS Maybe it’s a case of arrested development. When I left the Philippines, I was an adult. I was different from someone who was transplanted to another country when he was younger and did not develop a sense of connection. I remember a situation where I was giving a lecture in Los Angeles and there was a student in the back who asked me “Why is it that your work is not reflective of your Filipino culture?” So I asked, “What do you mean by that? What did you expect? Were you wanting to see palm trees? I mean, what are you thinking?” And he said, well, you know … and I realized that he was hungry for some cultural clue of what was my cultural background. He wanted it clearly evident in my work. And he said, “Well, you know, I’m studying alibata, really looking at archaic script.” And I said that’s good, you’re looking into historical references, archaic connection, something that you want to connect with in your culture. He felt compelled, as a designer operating in the US, to bring that kind of level of authenticity in his work because he wasn’t born in the Philippines. For me, seeing that, I don’t have an issue with not having that in my work, but the work, my work, is the product of a person who grew up in the Philippines who spoke English, is dealing with typography, dealing with linguistic play, precisely because I was taught English with an academic kind of rigor. And so when I finally had an opportunity to come to the States, I realized I was free of that. I won’t be castigated for imperfect grammar or whatever. I realized that this was my opportunity to subdue this language and make it my own. So that mindset can only come from the mindset of someone who grew up the way I did. It may not be the issue of an American, because for them, it’s fluid. There’s none of that transition. It’s harder for people to understand that because it isn’t evident. It’s much more of maybe an intellectual or linguistic exercise but that is, to me, the true layer, the true explanation of why my work is the way it is.

ADOBO Fair enough. It does come across a bit condescending, doesn’t it, if someone expects that everything you do has to be reflective of a Third World upbringing?

TENAZAS But you see, that’s the simplistic point of view. There has to be the understanding that I am the product of all these worlds, right? You don’t claim one necessarily over another because you are who you are, formed by the experiences that you had growing up. This kid, my sense was that there was a hunger and he was kind of imposing it on me. And he was, you know, it’s not enough. And I said, it’s too bad. You have your own issues and … In fact, it became kind of embarrassing because, I mean, this was a lecture hall and there were a lot of people. And I thought that this was something that we can talk about maybe privately. It doesn’t have to be on display, maybe one question is enough. But he was just lobbing more questions based on this thing that he wanted me to respond to. And I just said that it’s not as easy as that. And I realized that the kid’s young, he’s searching, he wants to know what that “lost” culture was, what he could have experienced had he stayed.

AfterTaste Postcard, 2012. AfterTaste is a series of lectures and roundtable conversations dedicated to the critical review of interior design organized by the MFA Interior Design program at Parsons The New School for Design.

ADOBO What do you do in your free time?

TENAZAS Well, a lot. My family life is something I devote good quality time to. I have two sons and my husband, who’s a photographer, we have a very strong collaborative kind of personal relationship, very kind of deeply respectful of our work. We are critical of each other’s work as well. He’s very active in his work. We were able to live in Rome for a year because my husband was awarded a fellowship at the American Academy in Rome so there’s a very strong kind of connection of cultures and understanding.

ADOBO How did you find that understanding in the places you’ve lived in?

TENAZAS A friend of mine said, “Lucille, when I came to the States as a young student, the one phrase that I hated was ‘let’s grab a bite.’” And he said, in Spain you don’t grab a bite. I adhere to that. I like that. It’s enjoying your life, enjoying your work, but also balancing it with enjoying your life. I’ve been on repeated trips to Italy and every time I go there, I’m not rushing, I get less and less concerned about running into the next museum, into the next baroque church or something. I realized that I just calm down, just walk the streets, and then absorb what the street life is about, and I think that is the product of being much more comfortable alone. I mean, I like that. I like the fact that I’m no longer intimidated by not having company so there are things that I like doing by myself. And even on a day-to-day basis, I pay particular attention to what I eat and that it is an enjoyable activity for me. And so in the morning, I plan, okay, is it a croissant or oatmeal? Where do I go? Is it to Starbucks, or wherever (Because I’m Filipino, food is a very strong part of my relationship.)? And part of that is this journey of walking around the neighborhood that I have, and it’s really because I start to observe different things and even if it’s just to have things to think about and be clear in my head. That’s what I do. I pay particular attention to where I’m having a nice lunch. It doesn’t have to be expensive. But the conditions have to be right. That it’s nice and quiet if I want to be in a quiet place that I have to savor the food, whatever it is. And I like that. I like being conscious of it. To me, it’s appalling when somebody says, “Oh my God, Lucille, I just eat at my desk.” Are you kidding me? You eat at your desk? And this one person says, “Oh, I only eat for sustenance.” And I say, “What do you mean? You don’t eat for the pleasure?”

ADOBO Having lived in so many countries, what do you miss about the places you’ve lived and worked in?

TENAZAS There are little slivers of memory that hit me, but I try not to regret anything and that all the experiences are actually cumulative and they evolve, they change, you just kind of edit out certain things. I have a different life and I will make my life the way I want to and that life is also portable. It can go anywhere in the world like you have, and make a connection and find something about these places you have been, that I have been, that it feels like home for me. In Istanbul, for example, there were these students. I was giving a lecture there and a workshop and I told this student, “Take me to the place where you like to go for coffee. Don’t take me to a Starbucks and don’t take me to the mall. But where do you hang out? And what’s where you take me.” I like these discoveries. You feel like when somebody does that to you and you actually ask for it, it’s a form of respect and at the same time, they feel that you are one of them. And I like that. That’s the nomad, again, the cultural nomad.

ADOBO Your work is distinctive for never pandering. Tell us about your take on the role of understatement versus spoon-feeding.

TENAZAS Okay, it wasn’t always that way because when I was a young design student, the important thing was apparently that everything was supposed to make things clear, to articulate things so that people knew the answers to questions, to solve a problem. But I think the more that I thought about what I was doing and my work, I realized that it was actually a good idea, it was much more interesting to be provocative and leave some things out so that you are not necessarily spoon-feeding or giving out answers because it doesn’t come out as conversation. You’re just handing things down and you’re just saying, ‘here it is, this is what I want’. You always have to assume that the person who’s looking at your work or the audience is equally intelligent and can decipher clues that you leave behind. And that makes them appreciate it more and they are able to leave their stamp on it or their interpretation. And to me, that is the most valuable thing. It’s a trust that you have to give the other whom you don’t know, because you never know who’s gonna be confronted with your work, and you have to leave it behind because my work will live on beyond me, and it will continue to live depending on how many people are confronted with it and interpret it.

 

This article was published in adobo magazine's 8th Anniversary Issue (March-April 2014).

Lucille Tenazas is a Class of Her Own

Interview and Words by Mikhail Lecaros
Photos of artwork courtesy of Lucille Tenazas

When it comes to the work of Lucille Tenazas, one is immediately stricken by the precise manner that the designer’s chosen elements convey information while avoiding the tendency towards over-embellishment that despoil many a contemporary work. Meticulous allocation of visual real estate notwithstanding, the voice and – more importantly – the intelligence behind each piece ring true and clear, communicating the intended message (and, by extension, the artist) more effectively than any number of superfluities.

Given the thought that must have gone into some of her pieces and the deftness of their execution, it is no surprise that Tenazas is at the top of her game. As a graphic designer, Tenazas has done work for clients as diverse as the San Francisco International Airport, Rizzoli International, the Neue Galerie Museum for German and Austrian Art, and a number of non-profit organizations and institutions. Highly-sought as an educator, Tenazas regularly gives design talks, seminars and workshops all over the world, in addition to being the Henry Wolf Professor in the School of Art, Media and Technology at Parsons The New School for Design.

With 30 years under her belt and a number of active projects going on at any given time, Tenazas is one practitioner who shows no signs of slowing down. Of course, the artist herself is amused by the notion that designing is the only thing people expect her to be up to all day long.

“They have this perception that I don’t have a life outside of design,” she laughs. “They think that that’s all I do, I live, breathe, eat design, I mean I’m serious about what I do but that doesn’t preclude me living my life and enjoying other parts of my life. Sometimes they’re surprised that I have kids, that I’m married…maybe the seriousness with which I view my work makes some people think that I’m a workaholic, but I’m not!”

Of course, seeing as Tenazas is the recipient of accolades like the American Institute of Graphic Arts (AIGA) Medal in 2013 and the National Design Award in Communications Design from the Smithsonian Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum in 2002, one could be forgiven for thinking that it was mere “seriousness” that got her to where she is today, but that would only be half the picture.

Simply put, any artist is so much more than the mere sum of their works and, as adobo was privileged to find out, Tenazas is no exception, proving every bit as fascinatingly multifaceted – if not more so – than any single design. 

The daughter of a civil engineer father and a mother who taught high school social studies, Tenazas grew up in the Philippines, attending the College of the Holy Spirit from kindergarten to college. The second of six children, Tenazas’ creativity was fostered from an early age by her parents. Despite having the conventional expectations of wanting their daughter to be a lawyer or doctor (“You know, it would be great if there was an appendage to your name, like ‘Atty.’ or ‘Dr.’!”), they supported her in her artistic pursuits.

Unfortunately, Tenazas’ father would pass away when she was 16 years old, meaning he never saw the heights that his daughter eventually reached with her talents. Tenazas started small, joining school and local publications’ competitions, slowly gaining a reputation in her circles for her abilities.

[From Top to Bottom] Animal Logic: Richard Barnes, 2009 Book Design for Princeton Architectural Press; Casa Alta: An Andalusian Paradise, 2013 Book Design for Princeton Architectural Press

ADOBO How did your parents express their support for your art?

TENAZAS My father would just sit and watch, he’d be drinking his beer and he would wait for my mother because she always got home a little later from her teaching – around 7 or 8pm. And so we (the kids) would have had dinner while he was waiting for my mother. And the table would be cleared and I would then lay all my art supplies on the table but I think what was interesting to me was that he would always sit by me. He never would question, or whatever. He would always just sit there and watch what I was doing and his presence was enough of an encouragement. Every once in a while, he would lean over and say “why did you use red for this?” or whatever, and I didn’t even mind it – I just went “I like it. I like making it this way.” So anyway, I think that the atmosphere that I had at home, the encouragement of my parents, albeit not overt, by not so much putting their foot down, or making it into a situation where “you have to do this, or else!”, and then at school that was a continuation because I was held to a certain kind of level of, you know. I was the class artist, I would do lettering for diplomas or certificates or whatever. So my track, in a way, was pre-determined for me.

ADOBO So they never tried to change your mind?

TENAZAS My father was always planting seeds in terms of…well, you know how it is in our culture, people think that the arts is not really a legitimate profession. You needed to be either a doctor, a lawyer to make money. And you know, who are you to question this? I never said anything because of course we are in a culture where the parents are an authoritarian relationship so I just quietly plodded along. But I think that at a certain point your parents can no longer question or dissuade you or do anything other than support you. And so I think, in a way, my parents were of that thinking that ‘she cannot be swayed, so we might as well just sort of follow what she’s doing.’

ADOBO Tell us about when you realized there was a living to be made from your designs.

TENAZAS When I was in Holy Spirit, there were always these on-the-spot painting competitions and it was always held at UST and I participated in that for maybe two-three years in a row. The first few years I was an honorable mention but when I was in my senior year, I was one of four winners of the top prize. My brother, who was at UST at the time, was hovering around. When my name was called, they gave me this envelope with cash – 400 pesos! We were so excited, my brother and I, that we took a cab home, instead of taking the bus on Espana. So we took a cab, and my Mom says, when we get home, “how did it go?” And I said, “Well, you know, I did my best”, and she saw from my face that I was not happy. Then I turned around and I handed her the fat envelope! It was something I did all by myself in a short amount of time in very constrained circumstances. It was like (professional) design – there was a deadline, there was a theme, there was a project brief, whatever it is, it conforms to all these things that prepared me to actually enter the profession, and then be rewarded for it at the end of the day. So I’ve saved that envelope. I just found it – my sister had them all in one place and I’m bringing it back to the States. It brings me back to how I was. When I look back at my family albums – what I was doing then and how things like this prepared me to be at this stage of my work in my life, I cannot take that lightly.

ADOBO We understand that you worked in a pharmaceutical company before you decided to go to the States to study. What was that like?

TENAZAS I had this full time job at Smith Kline in Cainta for three years. That was the work I submitted when I was applying to graduate school in the States. And I didn’t get accepted because it was a narrow body of work. I mean, you know, vitamin labels, exhibits for medical conventions, that kind of thing. Within that context, it was actually quite good, but taken out, it didn’t stand on its own. So I think for me, my going to graduate school in the States was one of those kinds of seminal points because what it gave me was not just to be better at what I did but also to be a better thinker. So suddenly you were confronted with “It’s not enough that your work looks good. It’s not enough that it’s pretty, that the colors are right, typography’s right.” When I look back on my earlier work, the concept was not really critical. It was more about making things look good and putting things together in a very interesting way but when you get deeper into it, you know, what does it really mean? And I guess at the time, the people who saw my work didn’t ask those questions anyway. And in the Philippines, that’s what I think is missing. That’s why I’m curious about how people really work in a context like in the Philippines. Because advertising, to me, really deals with, I mean you can’t help it; sometimes it’s the lowest common denominator. You’re supposed to sell something at all costs. So you have to compromise these high ideals of making something look too sophisticated or too elitist. This is what I’m interested to know: At what point or at what level do people have to, you know, dumb down the work? It’s much more common than not, actually, and It’s true anywhere.

Neue Galerie New York Museum for German and Austrian Art Design Shop Catalogue

ADOBO You’ve mentioned being a collaborative partner rather than a hired gun when it comes to your design work. How did that come about?

TENAZAS In high school, I was involved with the school annual, the school paper. I was always the art director. I was always involved with the editor. I think what was really a great experience for me was that my relationship with the editor and writing, specifically, was cemented in that the editor trusted in my contributions – it wasn’t just telling me to make it fit or just design something or make the artwork or whatever…I was put on equal footing, if you will. I’m not a writer, per se, but I took particular interest in the content. So eventually when I started working professionally and looking at my work, I began realizing, why am I involved in books? Why am I designing books? I’ve worked with authors and they’re sometimes not prepared to confront a designer who actually pays particular attention to the content, but eventually, I started working on projects where people would come to me and they’d say “We don’t know what the content is. I know it’s gonna be about this, but what do you think? You’re the designer. Let’s collaborate on it” even before the content is generated. And so, that I think is really a good role. I respect writing. I’m really interested in it, you know, because my work is very linguistic. When people do connect with me, it’s not about me saying “I’m the designer and you’re not”. I’m more interested in like “You’re the writer, I want to learn from your approach. I want you to see me on an equal footing.” And I think as soon as you establish that relationship, there is a lot of respect and it moves on to integrity and freedom to do what you want to do for them because they know that you’re being very thoughtful about their work.

ADOBO How do you deal with difficult clients?

TENAZAS They could profess they love you, they love your work, and I’m thinking, “What is your gut feeling, Lucille”? Here’s my bottom line: If I like the person and I can actually have an intelligent conversation with him having lunch, not even work, just like normal conversation with another human being and I can actually see myself sitting in front of them having a good conversation, I would take them on. But if there is some, I mean you know, there are people who rub you the wrong way or they’re aggressive, I’m not going to put myself through this. It’s just more trouble than it’s worth, so why do it? So at that point, you just trust your instincts. I’m very patient – I’m not an imperious person. I sort of look at the situation and just say, “You know, I want to be able to do a good job on this. I want this to be a project that we’re both happy with.” And they respect you for that. They do see your commitment. So this is what I’m saying. To me, my best weapon, in any relationship, in any of my projects, is that I’m very enthusiastic about my work and what I can do for others. Even if they’re just starting, they’re just kind of like kicking the tires and thinking “now, is this the kind of person we want to work with?” I’m doing the same thing too. I want them to think. People think that okay, you’re hiring me and I’m at your mercy? I mean, I have every opportunity to judge them in the same way that they’re judging me. I think when people see themselves as being an important part of the process, it’s great – it’s gratifying for them. They didn’t have to go to design school, but I respect their judgment. I can guide them. I can just say: “Now this is what I’m showing you. Observe this, and take a look at this. Tell me what this adds up to”. I encourage them. It’s not like castigating them, like “you don’t know anything”. Smart people, and again, this is my sense, smart people – they don’t feel threatened. They know they’ve arrived at what they’ve done because they’ve earned it, so they can admire and respect equally smart people who are accomplished. There’s no insecurity involved, there’s no need to be NUMBER ONE all the time.

ADOBO The funny thing is, if the client really does know everything and has all the answers, then what does he need you for?

TENAZAS Well, it’s really a kind of very sensitive situation there in telling them that they need to listen to you because you’re good. At the same time though, you have to acknowledge inside you that you are good. If your client has a very good sense of gauging what is good and what is not good, what’s mediocre and what’s high quality, I mean there are a lot of mediocre people, ...there’s more of them actually. You have to go through the riff raff. You plow through that. And then there are a few people up there who are at the top of their game and they are very few and far between. I think that it’s a matter of arriving at an equal footing with these people so that they do give you the respect. I just want to give you an example. When I was in the Philippines last year, I did a master class at the Ayala Museum, and there was this one guy who was asking me the same question, like you: “You know, I work for this ad agency and I really feel that we’re at the bottom of the totem pole here. We’re really kind of just service providers.” You know, these are the guys who are not really designers – account executives, I guess that’s the term. And so they now have to present the ideas to the client, right? And so this guy says, “Now I have to go back to work and just sort of have to battle it up with this guy, yet again.” I understood what he was going through but I didn’t know the context. All I could tell him was “You really have to defend why it is. Say it without any kind of anxiety, without any kind of tension and say, you know, let me just clearly state what this is about.” A rational response. And I saw him and he looked defeated. Poor guy. But anyway, on the last day of the class, final presentation, he does his presentation and we have a reception/ cocktails, picture taking, etc. This guy walks over to me and he said, “I just want to tell you that when we talked that first day, I went back to my office, remember?” And I said, “Yeah, I know.” And he said, “Yeah, and I just stood my ground and I talked with this account executive and blah blah blah, whatever I had to say, and he was just kind of taken aback and it’s kind of interesting because he went “Tell me what you have in mind.” And I was, wow, that was a quick turnaround! It’s not the kind of thing that you change overnight. But something must have happened to this guy for him to actually assess a situation and look at where he stood, thought about what I said, or what he felt he got from the class and then just did it! So I was quite impressed.

San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) Architecture Lecture Announcements, various years. Announcements for a series of lectures organized by the American Institute of Architects (AIA)

ADOBO It must have made you feel good at some level, to have given him his moment of clarity. Do you get that feeling from teaching?

TENAZAS (laughs) This happens a lot to me. I was giving a lecture many years ago in Miami and there was a guy who picked me up from the airport, and it was all very cursory. And he dropped me off, and that was it. End of the story. I see him again, years later, at some design conference, and he walks up to me and said, “My life changed after that conversation.” Maybe I was giving some advice, I don’t even remember. I was just asking questions about where he stood in his work, in his life, in his relationship, whatever, and maybe that triggered something. I planted a seed. It didn’t have to be something that was a profound thing, but it was profound for him. So as a teacher, and I have been teaching now for over 30 years, it happens to me that when my students have me, they get intimidated, they may get “oh, she has high standards” or “she’s just a little too critical” or whatever, and some of them don’t perform as well, some of them don’t get it. But I realize many years later, maybe 10 years later, I would get a phone call or get an email and they would say “you may not remember me but I was one of your students in 19-blah blah blah, but I have always remembered what you said.” So I know that it’s not an immediate feedback of what I have done or of what I have maybe planted a seed on.

ADOBO Okay, on that note, do you remember the first class that you ever taught?

TENAZAS The first class I taught was actually at Holy Spirit, when I was a senior in the Fine Arts Dept., in Advertising; One of the nuns, was being sent on a scholarship to Japan and she needed somebody she trusted to take over the three classes that she was gonna leave behind. So she assigns us to handle the courses – and we hadn’t even graduated! I was flattered that she handpicked the three of us and that she assigned me the most difficult one because it was theoretical – Aesthetics – and so I just said, “Yeah, I’ll do it.” So I show up months later, no longer in uniform and I’m teaching the class below me, who of course knew me because I was the president of the Fine Arts Organization. And so I showed up and they greeted me, and say, “Oh, hey, hi, Lucille! You’ve graduated, congratulations! Do you know who our teacher is?” I said, “Well, actually, it’s me.” We were only a year apart, so that threw them off, but it was a learning experience (laughs)

ADOBO How did you do?

TENAZAS Well, it threw me off, too, because I didn’t think of myself as a teacher and there was only one year separating us, so I thought, how would they see me? How would they regard me? It was a steep learning curve… I mean you know, the lesson plan was there, the syllabus, the curriculum, etc. but … so my first experience was really about catching up. When you’re a student, you could coast through some of that, but as a teacher, you’re supposedly the font of knowledge so I had to really do double work, or triple or quadruple work. So that’s the academic. I did that for three years, before I left for the States. But my first studio class was actually in San Francisco, in the school where I ended up teaching for 20 years, the California College of the Arts.

ADOBO How different was it to teach in California?

TENAZAS So I arrived, and I think my mindset before, as a new teacher, was to kind of replicate a design studio. Okay, I’m the art director – it just so happens that there are students, right – I would give projects as if I had a studio and these were my young designers. But over time, I realized it was a dead end because I was not interested in giving them commercial work. I was more interested in knowing how they thought and sort of mining their own personal interests. So it wasn’t about the client, the client was them. There were a couple of reasons why I changed my way of teaching. 1) I was confronted with returning students who were much older and actually more matured than I was and had more experiences. And so I realized that these were not your typical 18-year old students. Even if I was in my late 20s at the time, it was quite a humbling experience to realize that yes, you are the teacher but this is a journey both of you are on. So you may have had more experience than they have, but they have a lot to give you too. So that’s when I changed my approach.

ADOBO Tell us how this ties in to your concept of the cultural nomad.

TENAZAS The cultural nomad versus the cultural tourist. We all have been tourists at one time or another. Sometimes we act like tourists and sometimes we try to not act like tourists, even if we are. But the idea of what a tourist is and how a tourist responds to a place is really more about superficially gliding through a place. And because there’s a fear of kind of absorbing the place because it’s an unknown quantity whereas a nomad kind of just allows himself to weave in and out of situations and assess, and stand not apart, but try and let himself be absorbed into the situation. And I’d like to think of myself as one. And I tell my students and in my lectures as well, that design is really kind of a mindset, of affecting the mindset of a cultural nomad. Especially because we cross cultures – and I’m not talking geographic cultures. You’re moving among, within, between cultures and you have to be flexible. When I give these kinds of projects, like talk to the person next to you in the bus, the students ask, “Is that a design problem? This has nothing to do with design.” And I say that it has everything to do with design, because beyond you working on whatever website, logo or magazine, whatever, you would have had to establish that relationship first before you’re able to do something and the success of that work is contingent on that relationship that you have with your client.

ADOBO How do you go about forming that relationship?

TENAZAS It’s kind of empathetic, which is a hard word to describe because empathy is really putting yourself in that position and to try and imagine what that is. I ask my students, what’s the difference between sympathy and empathy? And then they say, sympathy involves a kind of grief or some sort of unfortunate situation that one feels that you need to kind of connect with them whereas empathy doesn’t necessarily have to involve that. It just means that I understand what you’re saying but even if I’m not, if my client’s Chinese, I’m not Chinese, what does that mean? How do I connect with them? I have a 25-year old client but their needs are very different from mine, I could be their mother, so what does that mean? So there has got to be some way where there is a common language or a common understanding that we all
connect with and there’s an engagement, and that I think is really the key. Even just a brief conversation, it’s a connection. That, to me, is what empathy is about.

Pistahan Festival, 2013. Pistahan is an annual celebration of Filipino culture and cuisine in San Francisco. It is organized by the Filipino American Arts Exposition (FAAE), a grassroots, non-profit organization that contributes to the artistic and cultural pride of the Filipino American community.

ADOBO What do you tell your students about the love-hate relationship between art and commerce?

TENAZAS I tell them that when you’re young, you don’t have to be choosy and picky because at the beginning, you take on whatever gives you money and you’re saving up. You need to have all these different levels of experiences anyway; it’s not always perfect. But the important thing is for them to know what they are about, what they represent and what their values are. So when they get to the point where they say, “okay, this is not me anymore”, they have to have the courage to say, “I can’t stay here anymore, this is dehumanizing”, because at a certain point it’s gonna be hard to leave. People sometimes do these kinds of things where their five-days-of-the-week job is a drudgery, and then the fun work is on the weekends, right? I just don’t understand that; life is too short to be doing work (that you don’t care for) for the better part of the week. And that’s the majority of people we know and that’s because they have allowed themselves to be led on. They did not put their foot down, they didn’t make a stand at the beginning and say, “this is really about me, this is my life, so why am I doing this?” But for you to arrive at that decision, you would need to really know where you stand, what your values are. I’m not talking about morality here, I’m just talking about a kind of integrity, an identity of what you represent as a person and as a creative human being.

ADOBO In your experience, either in your professional or academic careers, how much did your background play into it? Like your race or gender, did either affect how people perceived you?

TENAZAS I get asked this question. But the thing is, when I arrived in the States, the one thing that made me feel that I may not be as good as they were was the fact that I was older than them. I just thought: Okay, I’ve had a degree already in the Philippines and I’m back in school and so these kids are younger than me. This is a little bit of a humbling situation. And the second issue was that, since I’m from another country, they have been in this educational system for a long time so their work is much more polished (I thought). I never thought of race, I never thought of gender. It was really about two things: My coming from another context and being transplanted to another and trying to see whether my work would out or would stand being seen on the same level. But I just realized: If I can speak English, then there’s no issue. I’m sure I realized I look different, but it didn’t really hit me. I just thought: I could speak English and I could communicate, there shouldn’t be a problem, right? I mean, they understood exactly what I said, I could talk to them, my work was good, so why should there be a problem?

ADOBO Filipinos in other countries tend to have entirely different sets of problems.

TENAZAS Maybe it’s a case of arrested development. When I left the Philippines, I was an adult. I was different from someone who was transplanted to another country when he was younger and did not develop a sense of connection. I remember a situation where I was giving a lecture in Los Angeles and there was a student in the back who asked me “Why is it that your work is not reflective of your Filipino culture?” So I asked, “What do you mean by that? What did you expect? Were you wanting to see palm trees? I mean, what are you thinking?” And he said, well, you know … and I realized that he was hungry for some cultural clue of what was my cultural background. He wanted it clearly evident in my work. And he said, “Well, you know, I’m studying alibata, really looking at archaic script.” And I said that’s good, you’re looking into historical references, archaic connection, something that you want to connect with in your culture. He felt compelled, as a designer operating in the US, to bring that kind of level of authenticity in his work because he wasn’t born in the Philippines. For me, seeing that, I don’t have an issue with not having that in my work, but the work, my work, is the product of a person who grew up in the Philippines who spoke English, is dealing with typography, dealing with linguistic play, precisely because I was taught English with an academic kind of rigor. And so when I finally had an opportunity to come to the States, I realized I was free of that. I won’t be castigated for imperfect grammar or whatever. I realized that this was my opportunity to subdue this language and make it my own. So that mindset can only come from the mindset of someone who grew up the way I did. It may not be the issue of an American, because for them, it’s fluid. There’s none of that transition. It’s harder for people to understand that because it isn’t evident. It’s much more of maybe an intellectual or linguistic exercise but that is, to me, the true layer, the true explanation of why my work is the way it is.

ADOBO Fair enough. It does come across a bit condescending, doesn’t it, if someone expects that everything you do has to be reflective of a Third World upbringing?

TENAZAS But you see, that’s the simplistic point of view. There has to be the understanding that I am the product of all these worlds, right? You don’t claim one necessarily over another because you are who you are, formed by the experiences that you had growing up. This kid, my sense was that there was a hunger and he was kind of imposing it on me. And he was, you know, it’s not enough. And I said, it’s too bad. You have your own issues and … In fact, it became kind of embarrassing because, I mean, this was a lecture hall and there were a lot of people. And I thought that this was something that we can talk about maybe privately. It doesn’t have to be on display, maybe one question is enough. But he was just lobbing more questions based on this thing that he wanted me to respond to. And I just said that it’s not as easy as that. And I realized that the kid’s young, he’s searching, he wants to know what that “lost” culture was, what he could have experienced had he stayed.

AfterTaste Postcard, 2012. AfterTaste is a series of lectures and roundtable conversations dedicated to the critical review of interior design organized by the MFA Interior Design program at Parsons The New School for Design.

ADOBO What do you do in your free time?

TENAZAS Well, a lot. My family life is something I devote good quality time to. I have two sons and my husband, who’s a photographer, we have a very strong collaborative kind of personal relationship, very kind of deeply respectful of our work. We are critical of each other’s work as well. He’s very active in his work. We were able to live in Rome for a year because my husband was awarded a fellowship at the American Academy in Rome so there’s a very strong kind of connection of cultures and understanding.

ADOBO How did you find that understanding in the places you’ve lived in?

TENAZAS A friend of mine said, “Lucille, when I came to the States as a young student, the one phrase that I hated was ‘let’s grab a bite.’” And he said, in Spain you don’t grab a bite. I adhere to that. I like that. It’s enjoying your life, enjoying your work, but also balancing it with enjoying your life. I’ve been on repeated trips to Italy and every time I go there, I’m not rushing, I get less and less concerned about running into the next museum, into the next baroque church or something. I realized that I just calm down, just walk the streets, and then absorb what the street life is about, and I think that is the product of being much more comfortable alone. I mean, I like that. I like the fact that I’m no longer intimidated by not having company so there are things that I like doing by myself. And even on a day-to-day basis, I pay particular attention to what I eat and that it is an enjoyable activity for me. And so in the morning, I plan, okay, is it a croissant or oatmeal? Where do I go? Is it to Starbucks, or wherever (Because I’m Filipino, food is a very strong part of my relationship.)? And part of that is this journey of walking around the neighborhood that I have, and it’s really because I start to observe different things and even if it’s just to have things to think about and be clear in my head. That’s what I do. I pay particular attention to where I’m having a nice lunch. It doesn’t have to be expensive. But the conditions have to be right. That it’s nice and quiet if I want to be in a quiet place that I have to savor the food, whatever it is. And I like that. I like being conscious of it. To me, it’s appalling when somebody says, “Oh my God, Lucille, I just eat at my desk.” Are you kidding me? You eat at your desk? And this one person says, “Oh, I only eat for sustenance.” And I say, “What do you mean? You don’t eat for the pleasure?”

ADOBO Having lived in so many countries, what do you miss about the places you’ve lived and worked in?

TENAZAS There are little slivers of memory that hit me, but I try not to regret anything and that all the experiences are actually cumulative and they evolve, they change, you just kind of edit out certain things. I have a different life and I will make my life the way I want to and that life is also portable. It can go anywhere in the world like you have, and make a connection and find something about these places you have been, that I have been, that it feels like home for me. In Istanbul, for example, there were these students. I was giving a lecture there and a workshop and I told this student, “Take me to the place where you like to go for coffee. Don’t take me to a Starbucks and don’t take me to the mall. But where do you hang out? And what’s where you take me.” I like these discoveries. You feel like when somebody does that to you and you actually ask for it, it’s a form of respect and at the same time, they feel that you are one of them. And I like that. That’s the nomad, again, the cultural nomad.

ADOBO Your work is distinctive for never pandering. Tell us about your take on the role of understatement versus spoon-feeding.

TENAZAS Okay, it wasn’t always that way because when I was a young design student, the important thing was apparently that everything was supposed to make things clear, to articulate things so that people knew the answers to questions, to solve a problem. But I think the more that I thought about what I was doing and my work, I realized that it was actually a good idea, it was much more interesting to be provocative and leave some things out so that you are not necessarily spoon-feeding or giving out answers because it doesn’t come out as conversation. You’re just handing things down and you’re just saying, ‘here it is, this is what I want’. You always have to assume that the person who’s looking at your work or the audience is equally intelligent and can decipher clues that you leave behind. And that makes them appreciate it more and they are able to leave their stamp on it or their interpretation. And to me, that is the most valuable thing. It’s a trust that you have to give the other whom you don’t know, because you never know who’s gonna be confronted with your work, and you have to leave it behind because my work will live on beyond me, and it will continue to live depending on how many people are confronted with it and interpret it.

 

This article was published in adobo magazine's 8th Anniversary Issue (March-April 2014).