Leila Tai Shenkin on Teaching and Loving Design

Leila Tai Shenkin’s biggest concern in the entire JCK Rock Star competition (episode 5, starring Rosanne Pugliese, debuted two weeks ago) was was that her “kids,” or students, learned something. The longtime FIT instructor has taught students as young as 17 about bench skills and rendering, and takes her role as educator—of youths and adult contestants—quite seriously.

“This is what I do teaching at FIT—I teach design,” she explains in a phone interview with JCK. “It means a lot to me to do it correctly—to teach them the right vocabulary and to think about balance; this is why we go crazy about a beautiful piece of jewelry using all the elements of good design. I love design, and I feel devoted to beautiful shapes.”

Like contestant Michael Bruder in episode 3, she, too, had never seen a reality show before participating in JCK Rock Star, and wonders if her critiques of contestants’ works were well received. “I was very straightforward with those kids, I may have been a little tough,” she admits.

But she stuck to her gut decisions, and spoke honestly about the works of each contestant. “I learned to be really true,” she says. “If I’m not, they won’t learn anything.”

Still, honesty doesn’t come without a price. As an instructor who routinely teaches the importance of critiques (done daily among FIT scholars), perhaps no one better understands the challenges of relaying strong opinions to a well-intentioned and enthusiastic pupil. “It’s not an easy job,” she says.

“It was not so easy to confront the person, knowing how serious they are and how important the project is,” she recollects. For example, after a seemingly heated discussion with Bruder in episode 3 about considering an alternate design aesthetic, Shenkin expresses delight with his final piece. “It was gorgeous the way he fixed it,” she says. Critiques are important “not to put value judgments on pieces,” she explains, but in order to consider every possible way of making an exceptional piece of jewelry.

Alternatively, Shenkin benefitted from the warmth and exuberance of each Rock Star contestant. “I felt very inspired by them and their joy of working and creating,” she says. Meanwhile, Shenkin’s own karat gold, plique-à-jour enamel, Art Nouveau–inspired jewelry is taking a contemporary turn: she’s introducing pieces in silver with gold accents at a private exhibition next month. Additionally, Shenkin can also relate to some of the competitor’s stress: “The candidates were working in such a limited amount of time.… I felt for them because that’s what happening when I’m getting ready for a show!”

And while Shenkin declares ease and comfort working with all participants, she points out that widely varying tastes and personalities are the norm in teaching. “Students come from all walks of life, and you do get a few shocks,” she says. “That’s when you have to realize where they’re coming from.”

For sure, the caricatures of humanity will continue to play out on Bravo and A&E programming, but Shenkin wonders what life lessons are to be learned by those viewers. “Don’t these shows teach people something? To be a little more cultured?” queries Shenkin—albeit naively about The Real Housewives series and Gene Simmons Family Jewels.

Sadly, no, Leila—but methinks Rock Star fans do have a more upbeat takeaway: a stronger appreciation for good design, and all that creating it entails.