When exceptional professionals become university faculty, their industry expertise can have a profound impact in the classroom and beyond. Enter Chi Thien “CT” Nguyen, who in May 2020 joined SCAD as chair of preservation design after a decade at the Boston-based firm Elkus Manfredi Architects.
“I’m here to embrace and develop the vision of the program with new ideas,” Nguyen says.
Preservation design is the adaptive reuse of historically significant buildings to meet contemporary and future needs. (SCAD itself practices the highest principles of preservation design, having revitalized nearly 60 historic buildings in Savannah.) As CT explains: “Historically, preservation has been about restoration and conservation in the public sector. What I’m pushing the program towards is preservation-minded strategic thinking from within in the private sector. Think of it more as a partnership rather than a divide between the different parties involved in the process. The title I would like our students to have is ‘strategist’.”
Nguyen points to three exceptional preservation design alumni who graduated in 2021, Paulina León, Kathryn Luu, and Jillian Nadolski (all B.F.A., preservation design, 2021), as strategists who have already entered the field as professionals. He praises SCAD Atlanta alumna Crystal Martin (M.F.A., luxury and fashion management; interior design, 2021), who won the LIV Awards 2020 Interior Design Historic & Heritage student category for a project generated during the class Entrepreneurship for Community Revitalization (PRES 741) with professor Sabrinna Cox.
It’s not a coincidence that Nguyen and Elkus Manfredi won LIV Awards 2020 Interior Design Historic & Heritage for their work on the 1920s hotel White Elephant Palm Beach. CT practiced what he preaches. “I tell my students: Trust is the most valuable currency. Whether from an intermediate designer you’re working under, or from the principal of the firm, once you get their trust you will go far. Be reliable. Complete the task you’ve been asked to do. Then complete something extra that shows how creative you are.”
Born in Ho Chi Minh City, the son of diplomats, CT came to the U.S. in 2004 at age 16 and began attending a public high school in Washington, D.C. “I didn’t speak English. It was a big culture shock.” His urgent acquisition of soft skills empowers him, years later, to refute the bogus dichotomy between academic and social-emotional learning. “We want our students to be visionaries, so let’s help them be good at selling their ideas. Digital skills and hard skills can be replaced by AI, but what are the emotional human qualities necessary for success? SCAD is ahead of the curve with SCADpro and SCADamp, resources our students can access for free.”
In spring 2021, Nguyen led a SCADpro project with one of his industry contacts, tile manufacturer Daltile. Students designed strategies for the company to make an impression with Gen Z. “We created a marketing campaign and a social media campaign and a physical box that will be a gift for the new designers as they enter the field,” he explains. And he emphasizes the importance of a SCADamp certification for preservation design students-turned-strategists.
“SCAD preservation design is a unique program,” Nguyen says. “We have the opportunity to create something amazing on the horizon.”
Written by Peter Relic.