Mar 14th 2016 RISD Hot Seat III                                                                            

Rosanne Somerson

is the current and the 17th President of RISD. From a student-76 ID to an educator and academic leader at RISD, she has been engaged in defining RISD as faculty running graduate furniture program for 10 years in ID, founder and head of the freestanding Furniture Department, co-editor of The Art of Critical Making: Rhode Island School of Design on Creative Practice, provost and interim President. She has received numerous grants, fellowships, and awards for her design work, writing, and leadership. Over the years, despite the many roles, she has been able to maintain her own furniture design studio since 1979.   


          When I came to risd I expected to do photography. I wound up taking a Winter Session class in the wood studio and I fell in love with the idea of making aesthetic objects that also had engineering and human interaction connected into the object. For me the idea of making something that was aesthetically or conceptually interesting and hopefully appealing was exciting. I’ve had a long career as a designer. It became this active practice, a dialogue between my sketch book, my models, my objects and the people that responded to my work. In the beginning it was about making unusual, very high quality, one of kind objects that reflected my artistic point of view and as time went on I became more interested in green design. For me it has been to create a practice that expresses all my values that I have at any given time. It’s important to realize that we define who we are. Being very intentional and doing the things that are important to you. I’m trying to design and make furniture that you wouldn’t find in any other way but from me. When you are curious about something you want to see what that object is as it manifests itself. I’m a curious person so I’m always thinking what would it feel like or look like if I think of it in this other way. I like appeasing my constant curiosity by creating objects that explore that curiosity. I’m not making the work for me, I am making it to answer questions. Ultimately, it feels like the work comes alive when people bring their own experience to it and when the work creates a conversation between the designer and viewer. There is a scene in the movie El Postino, the premise is that there is a postman who is delivering mail to Pablo Neruda, the poet. The postman falls in love with a woman in the village and asks the poet how he can win the woman’s love. He says, “You do it with poetry, how?” And Pablo says, “if I knew any other way to say the things I’m trying to say I would use it. But this is how I know how to speak the things that are important to me.” This is my experience with furniture. I would say that at this point in my life I have other ways to communicate, but in terms of my own studio work it is the best way I have of communicating my ideas. As we evolve we become more complex and I have many hats. You try to wear each one with care and attention and try to adapt lessons learned in one arena to another, and hopefully you live your whole life with a sense of purpose about everything being important and everything being something you create in the best way. Everything you touch has to be as carefully conceived as your projects. If you do that, that’s the recipe for a very fulfilling life. 


          RISD is a community that gets more and more enriched by the people that define it. RISD’s uniqueness is Fearlessness. I think it’s the combination of extraordinary ability and fearlessness. If you take it out of an art and design context and say you were creating a community of learners who were incredibly talented and fearless, that defines a really good educational community. We have that here. Pushing yourself may involve a lot of fear, but you learn to get beyond the fear. Fear can be a great inspirational starting point Many people don’t achieve their potential because their fear stops them but at RISD we push students past that.  I used to have this project where I would have students do a long sequence of drawings but at a certain point they would run out of ideas and I would make them sit and continue. Inevitably right when they would get tired something totally new would come out and it would be something they would never have thought of. It’s this notion that if we get afraid that we have no new ideas, or we get tired or bored, we get up and make a cup of tea, check email, and distract ourselves. But if we are forced to sit and actually work through those moments, then that is often when great ideas come to us. And that’s what I mean, it’s that fearlessness to continue, not stop, and learn to work beyond your own limitations and cross into new territory. Nimble thinkers are not stopped by structures, they invent their own. The world is changing very fast like no other time in history and we need thinkers educated in the way that RISD students are educated. There are other forms of education where you are on a track and it is more about pre-determined standards, and while we have some of that here, we allow students to create their own path along the way. To me these are the types of people that will define the future.


          I’ve had to discipline myself to stop, put a mental place holder there, and come back to it. In my studio work, I had deadlines but I had a lot more freedoms to continue a thought and take it further and further. Over the years I’ve learned how to do that and honestly the most instructive period of my life in terms of time management was having children. I was ambitious towards my career but also a dedicated mother. I realized if I wasn’t organized in my time my children wouldn’t have what they deserve and it’s the same with my students. If my courses weren’t organized I wouldn’t have the time to give them time they deserved. As president there’s never enough time but I have a great team that I communicate clearly with so that we have the same goals and respect each other. I think education is as much a team sport as an individual thing. We are constantly developing what a RISD education is, talking with my team, and with alumni, students, and parents and getting all these different perspectives to help develop my vision and see beyond my own experience. It takes discipline and trial and error and learning to take risks to forge a path that is yours to get what you need for your education. 


          Question from Liliane Wong. “As the president of a very special institution, how would you define the ways you would go about expanding its boundaries? What issues would you select for such an expansion and would they be ones that would be supported by the Board of Trustees?”

          There are three areas that I think are important to think about as we evolve. I have never experienced in my life such broad interest in art and design. People come to me, some who have never worked with artists before, asking how they can connect with our students because they want a piece of something magical that is happening here. There is enormous recognition of the potential and it’s never been greater than it is now. The potential for what we can do is there and it’s exciting. I want to expand on that. 

          The second is I want to create the conditions at RISD for students everywhere in the world to have access to this education

          Third I want to create opportunities within the school to have more individual agency to become leaders in the direction of their own creative practice. I feel like there are places where we can loosen up some of our structures to allow more of that to happen. Over time there are certain things in our structures, particularly within graduate education, that would benefit from more opportunity for student agency and decisions about who students want to learn from and collaborate with, and how they want to learn. We need to broaden those channels. I’m excited to work with academic and student affairs to discuss ways to do this. People have different tendencies for how they prefer to work. When you want something so much and you have a lot to say through your work, it becomes very important how you do it and what pathways are open for you through which to succeed. The Board of Trustees supports our efforts to advance the future of our educational model while respecting the legacy of our core.


          Question for David Frazer“What does a fine artist need to learn in graduate school now that differs from a decade ago? Though technology is an obvious factor of change, what beyond technology is crucial to thrive as a practicing artist today?

Hosted and edited by Yu Cao and Rebecca Buglio


Read RISD Hot Seat with David Frazer from Painting

More interviews at RISD Hot Seat Homepage


       RISD Hot Seat is a new, student-led interview getting to know individuals at RISD found by Yu Cao and Rebecca Buglio in Graduate Student Alliance.

     Through understanding the unique perspectives and interests each individual contributes, and asking about the ins and outs of different programs, our goal is to bridge conversations between graduate students, faculty, and staff to build a stronger, interdisciplinary graduate community in RISD. Weekly interviews with RISD faculty and staff in each department will be sent out each Monday as a conversational article to the graduate student body via email, and will be posted on GSA’s website and Facebook page.