Rosanne Somerson Appointed President of Rhode Island School of Design

February 18, 2015

Rhode Island School of Design’s Board of Trustees is pleased to announce the appointment of Rosanne Somerson as the 17th president of the country’s leading college of art and design, effective immediately. Her appointment comes after an extensive international search during which the acclaimed furniture designer and educator has been ably serving as interim president since January 1, 2014. For more information, please visit

“President Somerson is a gifted, inspiring leader with great integrity, humility and vision, and is the perfect fit for RISD,” notes Board of Trustees Chair Michael Spalter. “Her experiences as a RISD student, alumna, faculty member, department head, provost and interim president provide a depth of knowledge and almost instinctive understanding of the institution that no other candidate could match. She has also shown the collaborative leadership style and informed vision RISD needs to expand its role in advancing global innovation in the 21st century.”

During a nine-month search process, a Board-appointed search committee comprised of 11 members of the RISD community took suggestions from a broad range of constituents before evaluating presidential candidates. Working with the search firm Isaacson, Miller, and informed by eight special advisory groups, the committee reviewed a talented pool of more than 100 candidates from around the world, with the goal of identifying finalists with the global vision, leadership capabilities and passion to educate artists and designers for a rapidly changing future. This week the Board endorsed the search committee’s unanimous recommendation.

“President Somerson has proven to be a thoughtful, energetic, inquisitive and insightful leader,” notes Board Vice Chair Lisa Pevaroff-Cohn, an artist, RISD alumna and a co-chair of the search committee. “Her long and diverse experience at RISD enables her to weigh decisions from multiple vantage points, including as an internationally acclaimed designer and artist.”

In the past year, Somerson has guided RISD with confidence, focusing on maximizing the efficacy of current operations and on planning for emerging challenges and opportunities for higher education. She has championed continued work on a campus master plan, which has already led to significant upgrades in academic studios and classrooms, student housing and administrative spaces. With an unwavering focus on students, she has advanced academic programs and led targeted fundraising efforts, laying the groundwork for additional support for academic initiatives and scholarships.

In accepting the appointment as RISD’s 17th president, Somerson says, “I am honored to lead this institution, to build on its strong 138-year legacy and advance ambitious plans for facilities, programs and global partnerships. Our extraordinary community of faculty scholars and practitioners, students and alumni is making a positive impact in the world every day. I know firsthand the value of an art and design education, and am confident that RISD’s model of immersive, studio-based learning has greater global impact and is more important and vital than ever.”

About President Somerson

Prior to her appointment as interim president in January 2014, Rosanne Somerson served as provost from 2012–14, leading the effort to hone and rearticulate RISD’s academic vision. She was instrumental in the creation of the college’s current strategic plan, Critical Making | Making Critical, which articulates a comprehensive vision for educating and preparing artists and designers for a changing world in ways that respect RISD’s founding ideals and contemporary character. In addition to enhancing RISD’s educational model – one of immersive, disciplinary learning and engagement in the practice of art and design – the plan ranks research, critical making and innovation, student engagement and diversity among its priorities.

In that same period, Somerson also co-edited The Art of Critical Making: Rhode Island School of Design on Creative Practice (2013, Wiley) with Mara Hermano, a book that sheds light on the pedagogical philosophy, critical thinking, emphasis on process and innovative approaches that make a RISD education so meaningful and relevant.

Somerson earned her BFA in Industrial Design (ID) from RISD in 1976, focusing on furniture within the ID department. After returning to RISD in 1985 as a faculty member, she taught furniture design for a decade before helping to establish the school’s first freestanding Furniture Design department in 1995, which she led for the next 16 years. Somerson served as interim associate provost from 2005–07 and as interim provost during the 2011–12 academic year, before being named provost after an international search. In addition to her academic roles at RISD, she has maintained her own studio since 1979 where she designs and makes furniture. Her award-winning work has been exhibited internationally and is included in private, corporate and museum collections, notably at the Smithsonian American Art Museum and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, among others.