A designer, professor and academic leader, President Rosanne Somerson has been committed to furthering RISD’s mission since she was a student here in the 1970s. She returned to RISD in the 1980s to teach and in 1995 founded the Furniture Design department. As president she frequently speaks and writes about the power of critical thinking and making, underscoring the value of art, design and a deeply immersive studio-based education to advancing life in the 21st century.
Deep roots at RISD
When she first arrived at RISD as a freshman in 1972, Rosanne Somerson 76 ID didn’t anticipate that it was the beginning of a lifelong connection to the college and its community. She had originally planned to study photography, but once she took an elective woodworking course her focus changed. “I found it to be incredibly exciting—and the hardest thing I had ever done,” she remembers. “I was challenged as I never had been before, but working in three dimensions was simpatico with my needs as an artist.”
Working closely with renowned woodworker, teacher and mentor Tage Frid and other faculty luminaries, Somerson soaked in everything she could about process, design, technique and aesthetics. She earned her BFA in Industrial Design (ID) in 1976, focusing on furniture within the ID department two decades before RISD had a freestanding Furniture Design department.
In 1978 Somerson established her own studio to focus on designing and making furniture full time. But when Frid invited her to take over for him in 1985, she readily accepted and went on to run the graduate furniture program in ID for 10 years before helping to conceive of and found the Furniture Design department. In 1995 she assumed the top leadership role in the new department, overseeing both the BFA and MFA programs and helping to establish its solid reputation for educating exciting new innovators in the field.
Somerson served as Furniture Design department head from 1995–2011, with a brief hiatus to step in as interim associate provost from 2005–07. In 2011 she was invited to become interim provost and the following year earned the provost’s position after emerging as the top candidate in an international search.
RISD’s Board of Trustees appointed Somerson RISD’s 17th president on February 18, 2015 after conducting a comprehensive international search during which she served as interim president from January 1, 2014 until her permanent appointment.
Somerson’s studio practice
Since establishing her studio practice in 1979, Somerson has continued to pursue her own work as much as her expanding leadership responsibilities allow. “My studio work is very personal,” she says, noting that she always thinks of furniture in terms of people’s needs and what it conveys about specific cultures and historical moments. But she draws inspiration less from existing cultural artifacts than from nature—and “even the structure of interpersonal relationships,” she explains.
Somerson’s work is featured in numerous books and publications, and has been exhibited throughout the US and internationally, including at the Louvre in Paris. Somerson’s furniture is represented in private, corporate and museum collections, most notably at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, the Fuller Craft Museum, the Huntsville [AL] Museum of Art, the RISD Museum, the Smith College Museum of Art, Yale University Art Gallery and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
“Ultimately I want to make things with their own forms of beauty that have a positive influence on the everyday lives of the people who own and use them,” Somerson says. “Objects play a big role in the havens people create in their own homes. I’ve always made furniture designed to be a positive part of that.”
In the media
Providence Business News
Board of Trustees
The primary responsibilities of the Board of Trustees are to:
- advance RISD’s mission
- provide organizational oversight
- set policies
* RISD alumni are noted by a class year and major acronym following their names. Parents and grandparents of alumni are designated by P or GP, plus the year of graduation.