Many Voices

Many Voices

Rosanne Somerson Portrait

Rosanne Somerson perches on a chair designed by RISD associate professor Lothar Windels and upholstered with fabric by Jennifer Siani (BFA, textiles). The coffee table is by furniture department head John Dunnigan. The sofa and pillows’ fabric is by Rachel Doriss (BFA, textiles). Over the mantel is a painting by faculty member Gwen Strahle. Photo: Cary Wolinsky

Renowned furniture maker Rosanne Somerson showcases the work of RISD in the school's President's House – her new home.

In 1972, a young woman entered Rhode Island School of Design as a freshman bent on immersing herself in photography. To find that same woman today, your best bet would be to ring the doorbell of the President’s House at RISD, where, if you are lucky, you will find her at home. 

Rosanne Somerson, the 17th president of RISD, was inaugurated in October and is the only alumna ever to lead it. But you should know that she did not graduate from RISD a photography major. In fact, her focus shifted to sculpture, then industrial design, and finally to furniture making. She went on to become a celebrated furniture designer and maker and to co-found RISD’s furniture design department, which now has almost 100 majors creating what she calls “things well beyond what people think of as furniture.”

Perhaps not surprisingly, Somerson was unfazed to find the 21-room President’s House nearly empty when she moved into it in January 2014, as interim president. Instead, she saw an intriguing opportunity to tell RISD’s story, writ across the rooms in the 1890s colonial revival mansion. She put out a call to alumni, faculty, and students: “Would you like to contribute?” The answer, which is clearly apparent when you cross the threshold, was yes, many times over. It’s apparent in the dining-room chandelier that summons memories of the giant climbing tree of your childhood, the tables of rare mahogany inlaid with words about art and design from different cultures, the embroidered drawing of chairs (which are also marionettes), and countless other intriguing objects, from the wallpaper to the pillow fabric to the surfboard in the hall. (And lest you think the house appeals largely to contemporary art lovers who live in rehabbed lofts, a group of recent visitors in their 80s and 90s – denizens of more traditionally furnished homes – loved it.

We asked Somerson how the house, and its evolving collection, came together.

When you moved in as interim president, were all these rooms really empty?
Essentially. The couches in this room lived in the house, but we had them re-covered and used fabric designed by a RISD alum. It was an opportunity to reinvent what the house could be, to tell RISD’s story. The house is part of the legacy of the school. It belonged to one of the founding families of RISD. I wanted people who come to the house to get a sense of the energy, a sense of the creativity, a sense of the multiple voices that constitute the college. I think people are a bit surprised to see the extent of the work. It’s not just what’s on the walls. Objects are wonderful spokespersons for ideas and for varying points of view.

How did you decide – and do you decide – what to bring in? 
I work with a team of three people. It’s really a collaborative effort: Pat Brown, [a landscape designer] who works in our institutional engagement area, helps me think about what looks good, what feels right, and how the objects will work with the events that we’re having. We certainly have to think about crowds of people in here. We have a wonderful exhibition director named Mark Moscone, who oversees all of the exhibitions at RISD, and he and I will often see something at a show and say, “Oh, that would be great for the house, in this room or that room.” And then Mara Hermano, vice president of integrated planning, also has a great eye and knows the house well. She and I will often discuss ideas for the house.

We were very budget-conscious, because one of my priorities is to really look at how the college uses resources. So, although there are a few things commissioned specifically for the house, a lot of the work is on loan. When I first moved in, I felt a little bit shy about asking people to lend their work, because these are all artists who have many opportunities to show and sell their work. But people were so receptive to being part of this house.

Although some objects are presented as you’d see them in a museum or a gallery where you can’t touch them, such as Arthur Hash’s jewelry in the glass case in foyer, the house has a very welcoming feel.
That was the hope. The fun of being able to put my own mark on the house was to put together interior environments that I think are really beautiful, that express something about who I am, but do it through the vehicle of showing who we are as a community. I really wanted the house to feel accessible and open.

Which rooms in the house are public space, and which are private?
The downstairs is really more of a community space, an entertaining space. We have workspace up on the second floor that is used for meetings and some guest rooms up there as well. And I have my own private living area, for my family and me.  

A lot must go on in this house. 
We have many events here. We recently did an industry event where we had students set up stations around the house with an example of their work, and industry members could ask them about it. The idea was to demonstrate what innovation is, because a lot of people throw around the word “innovation,” but the students really can demonstrate through their work what innovative thinking is producing for the future. One of the students designed a small robot that wrote “welcome” in the entryway on its own, so the robot was writing as people were entering. Other students were showing really innovative uses of new materials that they had invented – new contexts for manufacturing – and the industry leaders just loved that.

And we customize to various events. So, for a conference on shoemaking, we brought in probably 20 examples of shoes by alumni and faculty, and people could see firsthand some of the materials that were being talked about at the conference.

There are so many amazing objects – paintings, a wine bar, textiles, computer-generated art, a bronze outdoor water garden that you’re using inside, and more. These tables in the library are made of rare wood?
Yes, we commissioned a series of tables of varying sizes that all fit together, which we use in different rooms throughout the house. We have a really wonderful rare-wood collection that was donated many years ago. A lot of the woods in the collection are ones you could never get anymore, so it’s very special. We were able to get enough mahogany for all the tables from it. Two faculty members collaborated: Dale Broholm, who’s a furniture designer, and graphic designer Jan Fairbanks. The idea was that they would inlay words about art and design from different cultures and time periods in the table, so that there’s this kind of frieze of language going across the tables. We use them for so many different kinds of events. These two tables can go on the side for a serving buffet, or they can go together to make a smaller table or they can get added on to the tables in the dining room. Dale had some leftover pieces, so he turned a bowl, which is in the dining room, as a thank-you gift for the opportunity to do that for the house.

Speaking of the dining room, could you tell me about the chandelier, which is extraordinary?
It’s by David Wiseman, who graduated not long ago and has become a very successful artist. When I moved into the house, there was just a hole in the ceiling where the former chandelier belonging to the last president had been. I invited David to spend a weekend in the house; I knew he would love this room, because I knew the kind of rooms he often builds things for. So he stayed and got a feel for the house and the surroundings, because his work is also very much about bringing the outdoors in. And he created this amazing piece, which is on a longer-term loan. People of all generations, of all different tastes, love it. 

Do you still somehow have time to make furniture? 
I’m doing some design projects on a very limited scale, so I always keep my hand in, but I’m not actually physically making a lot. I’m working on a project right now with [RISD professor] John Dunnigan. When I was a faculty member and department head, he and I, with [visiting critic] Peter Walker, designed the furniture for 500 dorm rooms for RISD. And two years ago, we were asked to design dorm furniture for the Haystack Mountain School of Crafts in Maine, so we’re just now in the production phases of that work. I recently had a chance to travel to a factory that’s making one component and to a studio that’s making another, and look at prototypes and tweak the prototypes, so that’s really fun and kind of nourishing to do.

A lot of the creativity that I experienced in my studio, I’m now putting into the institution. So I don’t feel like there’s an absence of anything. And you know I’m always thinking about making things. Two years ago, I did a small artist residency, and I made drawings – kind of constructive drawings. They’re hard to describe, but they had some relief to them, and I really enjoyed the idea of finding a way to make something in three hours rather than three months. And some of the ideas that I get in designing an institution actually feed the ideas for things in the future. So it feels very much like it’s integrated into who I am, and I’ll always be making and thinking about new works of art.

You’ve mentioned that you sketch a lot. Are the sketches ideas for furniture that you want to make in the future?
Some of it is very abstract. Sometimes it turns into furniture pieces.

Are you ever surprised by all you’ve done in life? Did you have any clue that you might become a teacher and then college president?
No, no idea. I think what artists make is always something that hasn’t existed yet. The heart of our education is very much to be really comfortable in uncertainty, and to look at how to create something new that’s either a work of art or even a new system or structure that is societally enriching. 

My first year here as a student, I took a course in wood, and fell in love with wood. It was the hardest thing I’d ever done, much harder than what I had experienced in any other form of learning. I went into sculpture to make things in wood. But then the sculpture department head did not want students making functional work. So I went into industrial design, because I had this urge to make things that had a user in mind: an interactive piece that would be kind of a conversation between my ideas and the experience of someone using the object.

Years later, when I was teaching in industrial design, the provost encouraged me to put in a proposal for a new furniture department, which I did. That was in 1995, and we’ve had a furniture department ever since then. And it’s very broad-based. The students in furniture are making things well beyond what people think of as furniture making: the ceramics on the mantel are made by a furniture student, as is the chandelier in the dining room. We have furniture students who are doing everything you can imagine.

So you and RISD keep changing. Will the house?
Absolutely. I get really attached to certain things, but the artists need other opportunities to show their work. It’s also nice to bring fresh eyes. It’s amazing how when you bring one piece in, it changes a whole room. Having Jocelyne Prince’s glass piece has changed my experience in the southeast living room. It captures the light and the reflections of the outside, and the pattern from the trees. It also talks to Craig Taylor’s painting, and it talks to the ceramics. So everything becomes this dialogue, which I think is true in any good interior. When the fire is lit, it changes the details. At different times of day, some of the paintings kind of get noisier or quieter. That’s so much about living with art. It’s not a fixed experience. It’s an emotional experience and a sensational experience, and people have the opportunity to see that firsthand by spending time in this house. 

A shorter version of this interview appeared in American Craft magazine. Ellen Welty is a writer and editor in Providence, Rhode Island.