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Reviving Design in Fall River: A one-on-one with RISD President Roseanne Somerson

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On a recent visit to neighboring Providence, we had a chance to sit down with Rosanne Somerson, interim President at the Rhode Island School of Design. A dynamic professor, RISD alumna, and talented studio furniture designer and maker, Somerson became provost of RISD in 2011 and has since been focused on revitalizing and leading RISD’s academic mission. She also operates her own design studio, Somerson Studio, right here in Fall River, in a cooperative space she helped found, Smokestack Studios. We asked her about the value of craftsmanship, the potential of US manufacturing, and how RISD and Merida can continue to create positive change in the region and the design community.

Rosanne Somerson

What do you see as the future of design and manufacturing in the US?

“For manufacturing to grow and survive, it needs strong design at the forefront, because design is always anticipating and even creating the future. When companies can join design and manufacturing—which I think we do in the US better than in other countries—they have the potential to elevate the design-manufacture model.

The Fall River and Providence area is rich with both manufacturing and design knowledge. The language between those different professions could be something that could really differentiate the region [in craftsmanship and product development].”

What do you see as the potential for Fall River and Providence as centers of design and manufacturing?

“The factories don’t have to be built, the skills don’t have to be learned, they’re already here. Fall River—and any area like it—has great potential for new economic development. Companies can build a sense of longevity and quality, and connect to the region in a way that’s very powerful.

This is an area of textile regional history; it was the silicon valley of the industrial revolution in its day. It was where the innovative textile design was happening, where the innovative suppliers and fabricators were. Within the Providence region alone there were 2,000 small-scale industries at one point, and our students at RISD continue to benefit from this network of fabricators. Now a younger generation is interested in revitalizing that… and both RISD and Smokestack are a part of that effort.”

How does RISD prepare students to meet these challenges?

“What we teach at RISD results in individuals who come up with really new models of products and systems and services. CEOs are recognizing that creativity is the number one competency that they want to see in their new workforce. Our form of art and design education really encourages people to think differently and to have great perceptual and analytical skills that can be very useful in any career path.”

Tell us about the vision behind opening Smokestack Studios in Fall River.

“At Smokestack we created seven affordable rental spaces for young artists and designers to use, with all of the equipment they need. We’ve had some open houses for the community and have participated in Fall River Open Studio tours. It shows how a region’s startups can give a new kind of energy and fuel to an economy that needs to reinvent itself.

Because of the network that’s developing among Smokestack and other local studios there is a kind of a rebirth of some of the local manufacturing facilities in a way that really supports innovative product design and I think its only going to grow.”

At Merida, we place a lot of value on local craftsmanship, which is why we choose to manufacture in Fall River.  How can companies like ours contribute to the revitalization of craftsmanship in the USA?

“Merida is clearly concerned with high quality beautiful design, good materials, ethical working conditions. You get the fact that design is at the heart of what you do as a design company but you are also committed to local manufacture. When you bring all of those things together it develops a kind of commitment to a clear vision. It takes a few companies with clear ethics around those issues to really transform the way that design manufacturing can be identified with certain parts of the country, like in Fall River and Providence.

That idea of design manufacture is a really rare thing in business and it’s an important new model for local industries in developing regions. It allows businesses to become part of the community. By integrating yourself further with the community and history of craftsmanship of Fall River, you help create a better result both for Merida and for the region.”

We were thrilled to have the opportunity to donate rugs to the RISD President’s House.  The first floor, which is used to bring members of the RISD community together, is being decorated with furniture, textiles, accessories and artwork, all created by RISD alumni. Our textile designer, Martin Emlein, will be listed as part of the distinguished group of alumni.

Troy wool rug custom colored with undyed Noir and thin felted marigold

A Troy wool rug from the Tailormade collection custom-colored with Undyed Noir and Thin Felted Marigold.

Flint wool rug custom colored with undyed noir and thin felted persimmon yarns

A Flint wool rug custom colored with Undyed Noir and Thin Felted Persimmon yarns.

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