Feature Story

For New RISD President, Experience Counts

"RISD's model of immersive studio-based learning is more vital than ever for turning the conceptual into the practical." Rosanne Somerson

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Sitting behind the large drawing table that functions as her desk, Rosanne Somerson is understandably enthusiastic as she describes her first two weeks in office since being declared the new president of the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD). She has just returned from a board meeting in San Francisco and couldn’t have been more encouraged by the response she received about her school. “They love what our graduates bring to the table out there in terms of design and practical problem solving,” she says. “They just want more of them.” Having served as the interim president for the past year, it’s clear that RISD’s 17th president is now fully charged and ready to roll.

The board meeting was hosted by two recent graduates of the school, Joe Gebbia ’05 and Brian Chesky ’04. The two had met at RISD, become roommates and moved out to the West Coast after graduation. They represent two thirds of the founding team of Airbnb which, while still a private company, seems poised to go public with initial valuations pegging the company worth at over 10 billion dollars. Their growth has been phenomenal, with over a million listings in 34,000 cities in 192 countries. Not bad for two guys in their mid- 30s. “What’s interesting is that when they were here, one was captain of our basketball team, the other of the hockey team. Maybe it’s time for us to expand our sports programs,” laughs Somerson.

The abrupt departure of John Maeda, her predecessor, caught most everyone by surprise. Maeda was seen as the right fit for the school as it tried to establish better communications and more appropriate curricula for the more tech-savvy art students of today. Despite his international reputation as a technology and design guru – he had been the head of the vaunted MIT Media Lab – he seemed to have some difficulties relating to the more traditional aspects of the art school and in some cases its older alumni base. He never seemed able to get the faculty to totally buy into his vision. In addition, he also never seemed to commit himself to Providence, spending much of his time commuting back to Boston and his family, which remained up there before his unexpected departure to the West Coast and a position as design partner for the Silicon Valley venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers.

That said, Somerson quickly acknowledges that Maeda had made some important contributions during his six years at the school. “He certainly stressed the importance of art and design as RISD educates its students for the world as it exists today,” she explains. “He also was successful in making some new friends for our school as well as raising significant scholarship dollars for us as well.”

By contrast, it’s difficult to imagine another candidate more fully committed to the school than its new president. After arriving from Philadelphia as a freshman and graduating in 1976 with a BFA in Industrial Design, Somerson remained in New England after graduation, working first as a writer/editor for a national woodworking magazine before starting her own furniture design company three years later. After joining the RISD faculty in 1985, she later helped establish an independent furniture design department within the school which she headed for 16 years, all the while maintaining her own successful design studio. In 2012 she was named provost and even found the time to co-edit a book titled: The Art of Critical Making: Rhode Island School of Design on Creative Practice that elaborated on RISD’s particular teaching practices. In January of 2014 she became interim president before the position became permanent last month. Like Maeda, she also brings an international reputation to her new position as one of the country’s most respected furniture designers whose work is in high end collections and galleries around the world, including the Louvre.

One of the best perks of her new job is that she will now officially occupy the handsome 1894 Colonial Revival president’s house on the corner of Prospect and Bowen Streets. While only using the house sporadically during her interim status, Somerson plans to move in shortly. She expects to use part of the expansive three-story house for her own family which includes her two daughters. The oldest, Isabel Mattia, is a Brown graduate and works as the lead curator for the DeDee Shattuck gallery in Westport as well as being a sculptor herself. Her youngest daughter Annie is still in high school, currently attending school in Westport where the family maintains a home.

Somerson has already received a house-warming gift of sorts. Turns out the New York Times ran a wonderfully detailed story on how she plans to furnish the house in their home section in mid-February. Gone will be Maeda’s minimalism, replaced by an eclectic array of original artwork and furniture pieces by RISD artists. Her hope is to use the house much as it had been by Roger Mandle, the popular and beloved president who served from 1993-2008, when it became a gathering spot for students, functioning at times as a sort of creativity exchange. The irony is just five days after the interview and resulting story, Somerson was officially notified, much to her own surprise, she had been named president. “Fortunately the Times was able to update the article for a second story so the school couldn’t have asked for better coverage. We’re still getting comments from alumni all over the world who have seen it.”

There is something disarmingly down-to-earth about the new president. As a longtime academician, she clearly has mastered the nuances of edu-speak. But as an artist, writer and designer herself, you sense she really does care about a school like RISD and what makes it so unique. Perhaps RISD Board of Trustees chair Michael Spalter said it best when he noted that “her experiences as a RISD student, faculty member, department head, provost and interim president provided a depth of knowledge and almost instinctive understanding of the institution that (none of the over 100 other candidates) could match.”

So what is her vision of RISD’s future? After a thoughtful pause, she quickly lists her three major objectives. The first is to emphasize what in her mind makes a RISD education so important. “We help our students, and the companies they work for, deal with a world of increasing uncertainty and change. RISD’s model of immersive studio-based learning is more vital than ever for turning the conceptual into the practical.”

Her second goal is to spread the RISD gospel through partnerships with alumni and faculty. Increasingly, RISD grads are showing up in interesting places. Faculty too. As an example, she cites professor Peter Tagiuri, an East Side resident, who is currently teaching in Korea while also setting up an intern program between Korea and RISD. She’s sees the increasing interconnectedness of RISD’s international contacts as a critically important component for the school’s future.

And finally there’s fundraising, which will actually begin to take shape when RISD presents its master plan to the public this spring. “We have some 60 buildings on campus and we need to make sure they all support the unique teaching philosophy of our school.” What might this mean in terms of specifics? First off, she emphasizes there are no immediate plans to expand beyond the school’s existing footprint. That said, she acknowledged there is a need to expand and improve existing dorm space. The school also remains committed to its recent moves downtown. “Visitors to our campus continue to be impressed with our wonderful waterfront environment, the beauty of our campus and the charm of Providence.” But her fundraising needs to address more than bricks and mortar, she concedes. “Arts education is expensive and we need to gather the necessary funds to insure the best and the most talented can afford a RISD education. And, of course, there also must be funding for faculty enrichment so that they can remain abreast of changing technologies.”

Somerson spoke to the importance of RISD’s obligations to Providence. She acknowledged the ongoing role the school’s museum has with the city as a whole. And she was particularly excited about building closer working relationships with the area’s other universities and colleges. Somerson herself was a member of the committee that worked on creating a dual degree between Brown and RISD and fully supports the pedagogy of both schools working together. “If Brown neuroscientists work with RISD designers, for example, the outcome would probably produce a wider range of options and more useful real world outcomes in my view. Brown is getting more into the arts while RISD is getting more into traditional academics which I feel is beneficial to both schools.” An excellent example of this occurred recently when RISD’s school of architecture combined with Brown’s urban studies department to bring in speakers from around the country to discuss affordable best practices in urban planning. The lecture was packed with both students from the two schools and members of the general community.

In recent years RISD has been working more closely with some of the world’s largest corporations – ESPN, Levi’s, NASA, Samsung, Toshiba, Target – sometimes on specific problems through the career office, sometimes on more full-blown abstract projects. “Because of our hands-on approach to learning, I think companies see us not just as a think tank for new ideas, but rather as a do tank,” suggests Somerson.

She references RISD’s upcoming portfolio design day as proof. “We have over 162 firms coming to the campus, and not just design firms either. We have companies in health care, venture capital, you name it. Our model of education encourages our students to try and find new ways to reframe problem solving. I think it’s why our grads do so well in the job market.”

So what can we expect to see in the upcoming Somerson years? Well there are certainly reasons for optimism. We have a president with over 30 years of firsthand appreciation of a teaching philosophy that has made RISD arguably the best art and design school in the country. We have someone who understands its faculty, its museum and its interconnectedness to our city. And finally, as a bonus, we have someone who seems to be refreshingly approachable, personable and possessing what Trustee Chair Spalter called “a collaborative leadership style” that should serve her well as she tries to assemble the pieces. So on that note, let the Somerson years begin.