Rosanne Somerson is an internationally exhibited furniture designer and President of Rhode Island School of Design. Somerson, a RISD alum, sees her parallel roles as a leader and practitioner as complementary parts of her life’s work, which she says began when she was a young girl charged with describing the world to her blind grandfather and “opening doors for people to see things differently.”
Teaching has changed. The next generation doesn’t just want to have a body of knowledge passed on. So the definition of mastery has also changed.
Somerson, who grew up outside of Philadelphia, initially set out to pursue a career in photography. She changed course after her first year at RISD, when she discovered her calling to create functional works of art in 3D during a woodworking class. After earning her degree in Industrial Design and establishing a thriving design studio, she began teaching at her alma mater. In 1995 she was asked to run the newly minted degree program in Furniture Design. The scope of her leadership responsibilities expanded in 2011 when she elevated to the role of provost, and then, in 2015, named president of Rhode Island School of Design.
Lorne came to know and deeply respect Rosanne through their time spent together at various meetings and conferences. They discovered that, in addition to leading colleges of art and design on opposite coasts, they share a conviction that a studio based immersive making environment is fundamental to fostering and mastering a creative life. As they gathered in Detroit for a recent conference, Lorne sat down for an interview with Rosanne in a recording studio, converted from an old shipping container, to explore some of the most pressing issues facing arts education today. The result was a wide-ranging dialogue on innovation and change, affordability and accessibility, and the enduring and growing value of design thinking in these challenging times.