Rosanne Somerson and the Elastic Thinking at the Heart of RISD
As President of the Rhode Island School of Design, one of the world’s top design schools, the furniture-maker and former RISD student has paved the way for the institution’s cherished arts curriculum, transforming it into a leader in art and design education. With a BFA in Industrial Design and a determination to see artists have their place in the world, the design leader and successful owner of Rosanne Somerson Furniture, who led the creation of the Furniture Design Department at the school from 1995–2005 and 2008-2011, holds a deep passion for her work. She also loves the outdoors and reminds us that, as artists and designers, we need to create our own realities through the strength of our imaginations.
In this exclusive interview, which first appeared in the pages of the 12th issue of ODDA Magazine, Somerson talks about becoming the first alumni of RISD to become the university president, why the corporate world is now looking for more creative thinkers and how she went about decorating the school’s historic president’s house.
Q: First, how does it feel to be the first alumni to serve as president?
A: Well, it’s quite an honor and opportunity. I have, obviously, a deep understanding of the school having been associated with it for so long and experiencing it as a student myself. But I really think part of the reason I was interested in applying for the position is that I think this is a real moment for art and design when the external world and multiple audiences are starting to see the value of an art and design education unlike any other time in history. So, I am very excited to be leading an institution like RISD to really fulfil the ambitions of all that happen through art and design education and help articulate that to the outside world.
Q: Tell us about how you decorated the empty 21-room historic RISD President’s house in Providence, R.I? How does this reflect the deep connection to the furniture department at the school and the school in general? And if any, what role has your company Rosanne Somerson Furniture played in this process?
A: When I became interim president, initially it was in a very quick time frame and the house was essentially empty and we had a big event, a very important VIP event schedule for three weeks down the road. I had this idea that it would be great to sort of borrow works of art and furniture and other things, partly out of practicality, but also as an opportunity to really demonstrate the calibre and versatility of work produced by RISD alumni and faculty. So, we began by putting together a collection of artworks, many of which I knew from having seen them or from colleagues. It really brought the house back to life. It had this wonderful feel of RISD. When people walked in the house they said, ‘they had no idea that this kind of work was produced at RISD.’ For a lot of people at that particular event, it was their first visit to RISD. And so, with a little more time, I began to curate a collection of rotating objects, mostly rotating objects, a few things we purchased for the house, to really give it a sense of the aspect of what RISD’s strengths are. We are not just about making things, we’re not just about objects and art, but there is great communication in those objects and works of art that can really tell a story about our educational model and the value of art and design in general. So, it extends to things like the rugs, which were designed by a company that is run by alumni. The textiles that we used on pillows and upholstery were student designs and some alumni. In terms of my own background as a furniture designer, through some of our faculty and alumni we were able to get some pieces on both loan and also a few commissioned things for the house that helped to address multiple functions that the house played in all different kinds of events and audiences. So, I was able to use my design background, but I don’t really have my work in the house except for in a very small and symbolic way.
Q: While we’re on the topic, what exciting projects/exhibitions is Rosanne Somerson Furniture working on? Do you think your business and creativity will be affected by your new appointment as president?
A: Yes, well, it’s inevitable that it’s affected because this is a full-on responsibility and opportunity. But, I will say that I use my design education and my experience as a studio designer everyday in my work at RISD. It’s very complex to be leading any kind of higher institution in this particular moment in time, but particularly, one with all of the complexities like RISD, which is a college, a museum, and has more majors and areas of study than any other art school in the world. So, it’s a very kind of time consuming job and I have great ambitions for actually helping to move the institution forward. So, I think I have taken a lot of the energy and thinking that I have developed over decades of having a studio design practice and applied them to the problem solving and kind of directed future thinking of the school.
However, I do sort of keep one sort of pinkie in the studio work. At the moment, I am designing along with a colleague, John Dunnigan, actually the design work is all done, we’ve designed 100 rooms of dorm furniture for a very famous school in Maine called the Haystack Mountain School of Craft, which is a summer program on the coast of Deer Isle Maine designed by the famous architect Edward Larrabee Barnes. It has won a lot of architectural awards, but it has never had purpose built furnishings. I am on the board of school and was approached about designing some very sustainably sourced, very economical, sophisticated furnishings that would suit the needs of those cabins.
That work is being produced in part by a factory in upstate New York and by a studio that’s run by our alumni. The first part was 100 beds that were installed and put in place and in the spring, the rest of the furnishing will be added; a fun project!
The design work for that actually started before I became the sitting president at RISD, but I have been able to work on guiding that with my colleague throughout the life of the project. It’s been very exciting. The beds have sort of an angled backrest so that they serve as a place to sit and read, and draw as well as sleep. They have built-in storage that’s built in sort of a minimalist way, but very carefully designed. They also have a way to connect lighting to the beds because there is very little lighting in the cabins. There’s also a storage drawer, in place of a chest of drawers. And, since most of the cabins are doubles, there’s a cable unit that’s attached to the wall that allows for additional storage. So, it’s basically two storage units and then the bed itself.
Q: You’ve said that, “the best business ideas come from designers.” and that, “the world is looking for creative thinkers who can face uncertainty.”Explain then, why this makes an art and design education so important?
A: I think that we can all agree that we are living in a time of unprecedented change. I often say that we are educating students for jobs that don’t even exist yet. The definition and the world of work are changing so dramatically and the kind of jobs that will be desirable jobs in the future are going to require flexible thinking and nimbleness.
There was a survey done by IBM in 2010 where they surveyed about 1200 top CEOs and they asked them what they were looking for when they hired individuals and the number one top competency was creativity. I think that’s a reflection of the fact that, to solve the big challenges that we’re facing we need different forms of thinking. That’s exactly what we teach in an art and design school like RISD. Our students learn how to pose probing questions and not just reformulate questions and not just work from prior assumptions. Those prior assumptions are not necessarily going to be the forces that will help businesses succeed in the future. They have a way of thinking that gives them a certain kind of confidence to tackle problems that other forms of education may not foster. In addition, our particular form of education has a really strong foundation year where students are taught to become elastic thinkers but also develop a high level of skill and rigor with expressing their ways of imaginative thinking.
A conversation with Designer Virgil Abloh and RISD President Rosanne Somerson on contemporary design theory and its relation to current culture across mediums.
As a creative director, marketing manager and fashion editor, Kyle has developed brand identities and creative strategies for a variety of businesses and written on a variety of fashion topics for ODDA and Lab A-4 magazines. With his background in advertising, he helps his clients understand complex ideas, motivates them to action and cooperates with media outlets to carry out successful brand strategies. But the madness doesn’t stop there. He is also a recipient of numerous international industry awards hosted by AVA, MarCom, Hermes and GDUSA, and a judge of several international awards competitions where he competently utilizes his passion for meaningful, quality design to give constructive criticism and insightful design advice to his peers.
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