Long known as a leader in the studio furniture field,
Rosanne Somerson has also earned a growing reputation as an agile, adept and visionary leader in art and design education. She has worked with faculty to articulate and revitalize an academic vision for RISD since 2011, when she became interim provost, followed by a permanent appointment in 2012. In December 2013, RISD's Board of Trustees tapped the well-respected designer and educator to lead the college as interim president, a position she assumed on January 1, 2014. After conducting an extensive international search, the Board appointed her RISD's 17th president on February 18, 2015.
An eloquent writer, thought leader and presenter, Somerson is frequently invited to speak at museums, conferences, corporations and colleges around the world. She has served on numerous panels and juries, and appeared in several television segments and videos, including an
interview with her in the Smithsonian's Archives of American Art. Throughout her careers, she has earned recognition for her work as a designer, artist and teacher, including two fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the James Renwick Alliance’s
Distinguished Crafts Educator Award.
In addition to her various roles at RISD, Somerson maintains her own studio in Fall River, MA, where she designs and makes furniture on commission and furthers her own creative practice. Her 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.
Prior to addressing the Congressional STEAM Caucus on Capitol Hill | Washington, DC | 2014
Congratulating Associate Professor Damian White on winning RISD’s Frazier Award for Excellence in Teaching | Commencement 2012
Working with elementary school children at RISD’s Martin Luther King, Jr. Day of Service | January 2014
Welcoming new students to campus on Move-in Day | September 2014
Consulting with Associate Professor Jonathan Knowles during the construction of RISD’s Techstyle Haus for the Solar Decathlon Europe | April 2014
Welcoming US Representatives Nancy Pelosi and David Cicilline to RISD | June 2012
Speaking with a student at the groundbreaking for the Illustration Studies Building project | June 2013
Jurying an international design competition in Vietnam | 2008
An avid cyclist, Rosanne regularly participates in road races. Here she had just finished a century (100-mile) ride.
Deep roots at RISD
Somerson’s lifelong ties to RISD began when she came here as a freshman in 1972. “I remember it well,” she recently told incoming students – “drawing for hours and hours in studio, inventing new structures and forms, and trudging up the hill wrestling with projects too big to carry. It was a full immersion in becoming an artist and designer, and I was nervous. But I was also excited, infused with an intensity and energy that soon manifested in my work and my ideas.”
Although Somerson had originally planned to study photography, 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. I was trying to find the right means of expression, and working in three dimensions was simpatico with my needs as an artist. Plus, it was really hard work – which I like.”
Working closely with renowned woodworker, teacher and mentor Tage Frid and other faculty luminaries such as Marc Harrison, Hardu Keck, Ned Dwyer and John Bozarth, 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.
As provost, Somerson led a comprehensive effort to evaluate, fine tune and rearticulate RISD’s academic vision. She was instrumental in the creation of the college’s current strategic plan,
Critical Making | Making Critical, which sets forth 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 addressing ways to enhance 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.
“The strategic plan offers a clear guide for how RISD should evolve in the coming years,” Somerson notes. Among the many initiatives it supports is providing top-quality services for students, expanding RISD’s community of lifelong learners and extending technological capacity to support learning and administrative processes. The strategic plan also includes the ambitious campus master planning process now underway, the development of new systems to more effectively maintain academic and institutional facilities, and a renewed emphasis on fundraising efforts to support RISD's core institutional goals and initiatives.
One of Rosanne Somerson’s beautifully crafted tables
Working with two other faculty members, Somerson designed and produced custom furnishings for a new RISD residence hall housing more than 500 students | 2006
Rosanne Somerson’s studio in Fall River, MA
Rosanne Somerson’s workshop in Fall River, MA
Dressing table with curl
Rosanne in her studio | 1980s
Ongoing 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.
“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 2013 Somerson co-edited
The Art of Critical Making: Rhode Island School of Design on Creative Practice (Wiley), a timely book that looks at the meaning and value of critical making, both within and beyond the realms of art and design. Her diverse experiences as an artist, maker, teacher and academic leader inform both the structure and content of the book, which she developed in concert with co-editor Mara Hermano and with contributions from almost a dozen fellow educators at RISD.
“Art schools are lively places,” Somerson notes in the introduction, "but few outside their walls have the opportunity to experience the kind of environment where the new is manifest every day, where paradigms are continually stretched and challenged, and where shock and beauty flourish side by side. What is the 'magic' in the art and design school learning model … and how might the creativity and expertise that result from this form of education be accessible to others?"
It's just one of the many questions that continues to compel her to model – through her leadership capabilities and studio practice, not to mention by championing the diverse contributions of students, faculty and fellow alumni – the true meaning and value of a RISD education.
Highlights from President Somerson’s RISD years
arrives at RISD as a freshman
graduates with a BFA in Industrial Design
editor + correspondent, Fine Woodworking magazine
establishes her own studio practice
Award of Outstanding Achievement | Women in Design International Competition
Visual Artists Fellowship | National Endowment for the Arts
returns to RISD to teach graduate students
Visual Artists Fellowship | National Endowment for the Arts
exhibition | Craft Today, USA | travels to major museums in 15 European countries
exhibition | Rosanne Somerson: Earthly Delights | Peter Joseph Gallery | NYC
Board of Trustees | Chair + member | Haystack Mountain School
exhibition | Benched | Franklin Parrasch Gallery | NYC
co-founds RISD’s first freestanding Furniture Design department
exhibition | Rosanne Somerson: Points of View | Peter Joseph Gallery | NYC
1995 – 2011
serves as head of Furniture Design
exhibition | Women in Furniture | Leo Kaplan Modern | NYC
serves as interim associate provost
co-designs custom eco-friendly furniture for new RISD residence hall (housing 500 students)
exhibition | 25 Years of Studio Furniture | Society of Arts + Crafts
2006 + 2007
oral history interviews | Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art
named fellow | American Craft Council
exhibition | For North Bennet | Gallery Naga
appointed interim provost
exhibition | Furniture Divas | Fuller Craft Museum
leads the development of RISD’s five-year strategic plan Critical Making | Making Critical
serves as provost
co-edits a book called The Art of Critical Making (Wiley)
Lifetime Achievement Award | The Furniture Society