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At RISD, an Artisan Who's Now President

02/26/2015 01:43 pm ET | Updated Apr 28, 2015

The Rhode Island School of Design's (RISD) new president sees her administrative duties through the eyes of an artisan.

She should - Rosanne Somerson is a graduate of RISD who earned her degree in industrial design.

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Double Bed with Curves, Rosanne Somerson

That was before RISD offered degrees in furniture design - which turned out to be a short-lived situation. When Somerson began to teach there, she was encouraged to create just such a department.

She did, establishing one for both undergraduate and graduate students, some of whom now work for Pottery Barn, Herman Miller and Steelcase, while others are in business for themselves, and still others are working in the medical field.

"They get an excellent foundation in problem-solving and theory, and become successful designers," she says.

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Table, Rosanne Somerson

Indeed. Her philosophy of "iterative thinking for new and innovative outcomes" is about distilling theory, social issues and mental effort down into an idea. It's about bringing hands and minds and hearts together to create a dynamic result. It's about understanding traditional processes and new technologies. But at its heart, it's about problem-solving.

"They bring theory to life in a really strong way," she says.

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Chair, Rosanne Somerson

Somerson would later serve as RISD's provost, then as its interim president. She was named president last week, which wasn't really a surprise to anyone at the school, now home to 2,000 undergrads, 450 graduate students, a K-12 and lifelong learning program and a museum.

That kind of agenda ought to be enough for any president. But this one comes with a special approach to it all.

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Rosanne Somerson, President, RISD

"One of the strengths of an artist is that if you learn to deal with ideas and systems and structures, it all contributes to leadership," she says.

But after all, hasn't she already proven that?

J. Michael Welton writes about architecture, art and design for national and international publications and edits and publishes a digital design magazine at www.architectsandartisans.com. He is also the author of "Drawing from Practice: Architects and the Meaning of Freehand," due out from Routledge Architecture Press in the spring.