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5 QUESTIONS: Rosanne Somerson

Forty years after graduating from the Rhode Island School
of Design with a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in industrial design, Somerson was named the school’s 17th president in February. In 1985 she was hired to run the graduate furniture concentration in the industrial design department; a decade later she helped to found the school’s furniture design program. Her work has been displayed in the Smithsonian American Art Museum, the Fuller Craft Museum, Yale University Art Gallery, and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, among others.

Rosanne Somerson in the RISD president’s house, Providence. Photo: Jane Beiles

You’ve said that RISD’s immersive, studio-based educational approach might shape the future. How so?

We’re living in a time of great change. The competencies gained from studio- immersive learning help students and alumni achieve tangible outcomes not necessarily easily attained in a different model. Hands are very intelligent, and when the mind is cooperating with the hands and all of the senses, a new kind of knowledge can result. Design is so much about humans, and the studio-based model brings together the natural instincts, talents, and capacities of the human body. Materials have personality, and when you work with them, they make suggestions to you about what might happen. A student here made a beautiful molded chaise longue out of cork and built inside it a structure of airline ply with ribbing. The chaise longue had compound curves and could float in a pool or sit in a living room.

How do you balance RISD’s long-term faculty with your stated desire for new talent?

A balance of philosophy that comes from generational and regional differences makes a robust community. Technology plays a key role in everything we do. I brought new faculty into our foundation studies who are incorporating coding into the first-year curriculum — it’s important to write your own programs so you can design and create in the language of coding. Institutions and leadership can benefit from the experience of studio practice. The same conceptual drive is important to apply to leading an arts school. Art and design education is itself a beautiful piece of studio work.

What role can design play in humanitarian and cultural concerns, and can you identify a compelling project that RISD faculty or graduates are involved in?

Designers and artists are able to rethink social systems — we have students working on clean-water projects, redesigning the voting system, healthcare issues. Our recent Solar Decathlon students and alumni formed a team with Brown University and a university in Erfurt, Germany, and designed a beautiful house made of textiles that’s energy positive, the Techstyle Haus. It has this beautiful organic exterior shape and photovoltaic panels that can collect the sun at any angle, a form that could only be achieved through a structural textile. It’s now permanently installed in southern France.

What’s next for Somerson Studios, the furniture-design practice you established in 1979 in Fall River, Massachusetts?

I’m working with John Dunnigan on a project designing interior dormitory furniture for the Haystack [Mountain School of Crafts] campus in Deer Isle, Maine, a special architectural site designed by Edward Larrabee Barnes.

Tell us about your favorite piece of furniture.

It’s the one in my head that I haven’t made up yet; I’m developing it in my imagination. I’m influenced by furniture from Egyptian times to the most contemporary pieces — I like most the pieces that shift the way we think of the interaction of the object, pieces that help us see materials and forms. This is a moment for designers like no other time in history. The world needs us to think nimbly and regenerate questions that answer problems with complex solutions. Designers are at the heart of that.