What do Julie Mehretu, Jenny Holzer, Roz Chast, Dale Chihuly, Gus Van Sant, Chris Frantz of the Talking Heads, Seth MacFarlane, James Franco, Nicole Miller, Michael Maltzan, Robert Geller, Shepard Fairey and Mary Boone have in common with Brian Chesky and Joe Gebbia, the co-founders of Airbnb? They all went to the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD). “If I had to characterize our alumni, they’re all optimistic thinkers and creative leaders in a global sense,” says the school’s president, Rosanne Somerson, who is a 1976 graduate as well as a former faculty member.
RISD was established in 1877 by a passionate group of pre-Suffragette women who thought that artists and designers were uniquely capable of challenging and restructuring convention. “It has always been a rigorous, immersive system of studio-based designer/maker learning where people can master concepts, materials and processes all together,” says Somerson, who notes that RISD produces more Fulbright scholars than any other art school.
“I was enchanted by the culture there,” says artist David Wiseman, a 2003 graduate who is represented by R & Company. More than a decade later, the school has left a significant imprint on the artist, whose new 29,000-square-foot studio in Frogtown—the latest It district in Los Angeles—will be a distilled version of his RISD experience. “It’ll be a lab environment where you explore and play, and where there’s an open exchange of ideas.”
Misha Kahn, who graduated in 2011, first heard about RISD when it was mentioned on teen television series The OC. These days, he is represented by Friedman Benda and the installations he sculpts are complex and layered, futuristic and nostalgic at the same time. “I’m not mentally organized and I’ve never been interested in making a simple gesture,” he says. “I prefer to follow any fresh whim I have, so the discipline was really good for me. It was wild to be immersed in a world where everyone’s so visual. It gave me permission to delve deep into my interests.”
In recent years the number of students enrolled in RISD’s furniture design course has doubled, and animation is trending. The eight available places in next year’s painting graduate course may well get 300 applicants hailing from dozens of countries and practically every state in the U.S. “The newer wave of students is a lot less interested in things,” says Somerson. “They’re driven by social engagement, critical thinking and the desire to innovate and participate in the world. But like everyone who ever attended RISD, they’re encouraged to ask questions, and create colors, thoughts and objects that don’t already exist.”