WASHINGTON — For 16-year-old Princess Lawrence, it was dizzying to be one of 15 high school students invited to the White House as Michelle Obama honored the winners of the National Design Awards.
In a few heady hours Tuesday, Lawrence got to meet the director behind Kanye West's music videos, fashion designer Gilles Mendel and other top innovators in the worlds of architecture, graphics and computing. Those hours spent rubbing elbows with the first lady and leading U.S. designers had Lawrence giddy amid the White House whirl, asking herself repeatedly: "Is this real?"
For a day, Lawrence and fellow teens tasted Washington's fast-paced networking as artists, film directors and designers converged for an East Room luncheon. There, Lawrence was in the midst of the VIPs, introducing herself to Obama as "Princess Lawrence, fashion designer." Never mind that a few hours earlier she wanted to be a museum curator. She had other ideas after meeting Mendel.
"You'll probably see me next year" with the fashion winners, she jokingly told the first lady, who smiled at the junior from Washington's Duke Ellington School of the Arts.
Obama teamed up Tuesday with TV's Tim Gunn and the Smithsonian's Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum in New York City to honor the designers for innovations ranging from fashion and architecture to the realm of new computer fonts and even floor-cleaning products.
The awards are in their 12th year, but this was the first time the first lady invited students to lunch with those being honored. It's the kind of connection Obama was likely hoping for: She has made a point of inviting students into the halls of power to learn and be inspired.
"There are a lot of people out there who think you guys can do whatever you want to," Obama told the 15 teens who attended an East Room luncheon with the design winners. "They're willing to take the time, on one of the days that we're here to honor them, to give something back to you all."
After the pep talk, it was on to the awards.
"Good design is good citizenship," Obama said, quoting the graphic designer Milton Glaser. She said that's because good design makes life "glorious for the rest of us."
This year's design award winners include Matthew Carter, 73, of Boston for his lifetime achievements in typeface design that included creating the fonts Verdana and Georgia for Microsoft and others for major newspapers and magazines. He shared secrets of his work, telling the students he starts with the letters "h," "o" and "p" when designing a new font.
One personal secret he confided: his handwriting is "terrible," and he doesn't like to draw on paper. He only uses a computer for his work now.
"I can see in my mind's eye what I want a letter to look like," he told them.
Meanwhile, the Boston-based design consultancy Continuum won for product designs that include Reebok's popular Pump shoes from the 1990s and the Swiffer floor sweepers, showing not every product of design is high and mighty.
The museum honored J. Mendel for exceptional work in fashion. The Mendel brand has spanned five generations, first as a luxury fur company and more recently becoming a full fashion house with a ready-to-wear collection in 2002 under Gilles Mendel. He was seated at Obama's table for lunch, along with Carter.
Mendel is preparing for his Fashion Week show Wednesday in New York – Lawrence is invited to join him – and he offered a preview.
"Look at my prints tomorrow. They're going to be killer," he promised.
Designers Jason Wu and Prabal Gurung were finalists in the fashion category. Both have designed dresses for the first lady. Wu designed her inaugural gown.
Gunn, a familiar face from "Project Runway" fame, hosted a design fair for teens earlier Tuesday to introduce about 200 students to career options in design. Winners and finalists for the design awards shared their work with students in small groups.
On "Project Runway," Gunn is famous for his rallying cry: "Make it work, people." He told the students that design is all about problem solving and urged them to get down to work designing their future.
Eugene Yarbrough, a 17-year-old senior at Washington Metropolitan High School, prepared questions for the designers he met and said he was surprised by the interest they expressed in the students. Yarbrough is interested in photography but wants to pursue a career in fashion design.
"They're so eager to talk to us. I was nervous earlier," he said. "But I see they're all down-to-earth people."