Call it serendipity, fate, or just good luck: In the early 1990s, the chair of Parsons’ Department of Product Design read an article about Tony Whitfield’s furniture design work in Interiors magazine just as a faculty position unexpectedly opened up. Whitfield was invited to apply and became a member of the Parsons faculty.
Trained as a fine artist, Whitfield began his career working for museums, galleries, and nonprofit organizations that publish and distribute artists’ books. A job as program director at Just Above Midtown, a nonprofit founded to promote the work of African-American artists, led to a position as senior policy analyst for cultural affairs at the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council. Whitfield recalls, “By the time I moved into that position, I had begun designing furniture and started a small furniture company of my own, which led me to Parsons.” Whitfield agrees that his career has taken a somewhat unusual path, but through it all, he says, three things have remained consistent: “My career has always had a creative component, a critical component, and a service component.”
The service component will take center stage as Whitfield moves into the role of associate dean of civic engagement at Parsons. Whitfield defines civic engagement at Parsons as “all activities that take students and faculty members into the broader community and contextualize the ideas being taught with the goal of helping students find ways to change culture and society.” He offers the example of a Parsons student who worked with a nonprofit organization to develop a game that helps children with cerebral palsy overcome a particular learning impediment associated with the condition.
Tony Whitfield anticipates that Parsons will be involved in more long-term and complex civic engagement projects. One such project is District Three, in which students and faculty are creating interior spaces and developing a design curriculum for eight new magnet schools in New York City. “One of the things I’m excited to see is a cross-divisional approach to achieving educational goals that is taking root across the university,” says Whitfield. “If we’re going to effectively address issues that have real social impact, we have to know more than simply what we learn in design school. We have to be open to working with experts in social sciences, hard sciences, politics, and economics.”
Tony Whitfield’s own recent work addresses social and political themes. He designed a “chapel-like” space for the Global Africa Project exhibit at the Museum of Arts and Design, which called attention to a Ugandan politician’s proposal to exterminate gays. Whitfield is currently involved in a project that explores ways gay culture throughout history has been reflected in the presence and absence of spaces and artifacts. As an artist and teacher, Tony Whitfield has established a creative practice that reflects his commitment to community and social action—a foundation that underlies Parsons itself.