Back to the Drawing Board: Tony Whitfield '76
Tony Whitfield '76 is a Renaissance man in search of enlightenment. On the one hand, he's found success at every stage of his career since leaving SLC: He's been a journalist and curator, produced hundreds of performing arts events for the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council, and weighed in on cultural issues as a senior analyst for the Manhattan borough president. For the past three years he's run the production design department at Parsons School of Design in New York, and he continues to create original, provocative and award-winning pieces of furniture.
In another sense, though, Whitfield, 47, is back at his drawing board, sketches of his future arrayed before him but a finished product not yet in sight. He's trying to fuse the diverse elements of his background into something new, vital and different that, he says, "will have an impact on people's lives."
He's just isn't sure what that will be.
"It's an interesting time," Whitfield acknowledges, "taking on the challenge of creating something that doesn't exist." It could be a "glorified form of art direction" that includes producing, curating and fine art, but he says, "I can't tell you exactly what it's going to look like. It's a career in progress."
For all his questions, though, Whitfield also has answers, especially as they relate to elements of his chosen field that have never sat right with him.
"The design world is peculiar," he says in his soft-spoken, reflective, yet direct manner. "In some ways it's responsible for creating the form of everybody's life, but it also lags behind many other fields in terms of dealing with diversity and other social issues. Architecture lags far behind medicine or law or other professions in the presence of people of color, African-Americans in particular. Same with industrial design."
Whitfield's recent design work has included several personal, product-oriented responses to issues not typically addressed in design, including race, sexuality, privilege and belief. He's designed furniture that includes imagery influenced by skin tones, tattoos and his own style of decorative photography. He's created bronze hand weights, with a delicate duck's face and eyes that open and close, in a wry attempt at disarming the traditional masculinity of the workout room. And, in a mix of marketing and personal statement, he's produced printed cards for friends and associates with declarations such as "Tony Whitfield regrets to announce that he is no longer at peace" and "Tony Whitfield is pleased to announce that on July 17, 2001 he became free, white, straight and 21."
His Brooklyn home has some of his work that hasn't sold or that he couldn't bear to part with, though usually he bonds with the process rather than the piece. "It's more the idea that I'm attached to while I'm working on it. Then the pieces transition into other people's lives, and they're not mine anymore."
Whitfield has overseen the transformation of his Parsons department into a more complex curriculum, and forged design agreements with companies such as IKEA and DaimlerChrysler. He regards with satisfaction the continuing permutations in the program's already-uncommon diversity. "It's changing in ways that are even more interesting; the diversity is becoming more diverse."
So what's next for Tony Whitfield? His career has offered some hints. Three themes have dominated, he says: creating (through designing and painting), explaining (writing and teaching) and service (government and nonprofit work). The arts are common to all three. That's not enough—yet—for Whitfield to answer the question, so it won't be enough for Sarah Lawrence readers. We leave it, then, for a future issue.