Ep. 40: Rosanne Somerson

The President of Rhode Island School of Design, furniture designer/maker Rosanne Somerson was considered a rabble rouser in her youth for attempting to take a woodshop class while being female. Undeterred, she found her way to a BA in Industrial Design from RISD and built her name as a leader in the studio furniture movement. Now the president of RISD, having also co-founded RISD’s Furniture Design department, is carving new ways forward for arts and design education and championing the power of boredom. Listen:

Photo by Jo Sittenfeld

Photo by Jo Sittenfeld

What is your earliest memory?

I remember being very small (like 2 or 3 years old) trying with all my might (wearing super soft little corduroy overalls)  to push a large highboy down a hallway. Seems prescient as I spent a whole lotta time moving large furniture around in my life, and pushing against seemingly impossible obstacles.

How do you feel about democratic design?

Design always needs context to make sense.

Jewelry Box, 2016

Jewelry Box, 2016

What’s the best advice that you’ve ever gotten?

A sweater is something you put on when your mother is cold.

How do you record your ideas?

I take photos constantly to augment my memory—not just pictures, but things I need to remember. Also always have a sketchbook/journal going.

In the shop...

In the shop...

What’s your current favorite tool or material to work with?

My iphone is my current tool, but when I was building it was my giant cooper’s spokeshave.

What book is on your nightstand?

Always have a pile. Right now reading Patti Smith’s Devotion, Walter Isaacson’s Einstein, and The Shortest History of Europe by John Hirst, just finished The Airbnb Story by Leigh Gallagher. Also, I love reading cookbooks like novels—right now I’m loving Mozza at Home by Nancy Silverton.

Chairs, 2003

Chairs, 2003

Why is authenticity in design important?

It both reflects and advances the human spirit.

Favorite restaurant in your city?

Oberlin and of course Al Forno. 


What might we find on your desk right now?

You don’t want to see my work table.

Who do you look up to and why?

Our students. They are so incredibly talented.


What’s your favorite project that you’ve done and why?

I’ve built a lot of things that have been super challenging and rewarding, but nothing compares to working in my current role—trying to create the best environment and circumstances to educate the leading artists and designers of the future.

What are the last five songs you listened to?

I don't know music anymore so I rely on Pandora to surprise me.


Follow the adventures of Rosanne Somerson on Twitter or Instagram, and learn more about RISD RISD.edu.

Special thanks to Chris Modl of Yore Studio for editing this episode.
Music in this episode courtesy of El Ten Eleven—hear more on Bandcamp.
Shoutout to Jenny Rask for designing the Clever logo.