10 Questions With… RISD President Crystal Williams
As students get ready to head back to school, those at the Rhode Island School of Design will be welcomed by a new president—that is, if they didn’t meet her last spring when she officially assumed the role. Crystal Williams, previously vice president and associate provost for community and inclusion at Boston University, became RISD’s 18th president—and the first Black president of the school—April 1, though her interest in design started well before that.
“My family regularly visited spaces like the Fisher Building, the Detroit Institute of Arts, the Penobscot Building, the Fox Theater, Belle Isle with its incredible conservatories and gambling halls, and—once built in the ’80s—the Renaissance Center,” she tells Interior Design, speaking about her childhood in Detroit. “Detroit’s neighborhoods, too, are radically different—and because my friends were so widely cast, I had insight into how the housing in Detroit was also changeable. So, as a girl, I was aware of how architectural and spatial differences were in play.”
As an educator, Williams is dedicated to creating a more inclusive and equitable future while ensuring RISD graduates have the tools and support to innovate their respective fields. Also a dedicated poet, Williams wears many hats—all of which continue to shape her professional path. Get to know Williams and see how she’s leading change in design education, what she’s reading, and why dogs offer her endless inspiration.
Interior Design: What are some of your earliest memories of design?
Crystal Williams: I grew up in an art- and culture-loving family in Detroit, a city with a great wealth of architecture and architectural distinction… We also traveled a great deal when I was young–across the contiguous states to begin with and then through Mexico, Europe, Northern Africa, and Asia. So, at an early age, I grew aware of the sharp differences in how people and cultures—across time–engaged space. This was more an intuited sense than anything. But that sense embedded itself and was more fully unearthed when we moved into Lafayette Park in Detroit after moving back to the U.S. from Spain when I was 11 years old.
Lafayette Park boasts what is claimed to be the largest collection of Mies van der Rhoe-designed residential buildings in the world. I grew up not in a van der Rhoe-designed building but in Chateaufort Place, a modern cooperative development within the Lafayette Park development. It was there that I began to firmly understand, in an embodied way, the significance of interior architecture and how the natural world, when incorporated into the design, can amplify a sense of community and connection. So, I think space is my earliest memory of design and its importance and impact on how I felt in a space, how members of any community or I behaved, and what the function of space is in relation to the spirit and soul or, at least, my spirit and soul.
ID: What led you to become an educator?
CW: If I’m frank, I wanted to find a career that would enable me to make art and have health insurance and a regular paycheck. Unfortunately, poetry is not an art that is compensated commensurately with its importance to the human project. So, initially, I became an educator for practical reasons.
The more interesting question is: why have I remained an educator? And that is because I quickly grew to believe that to be able to be an educated human (which is a privilege often taken for granted), to be able to think critically about the world around us, and, with those skills and habits of mind, to be able to engage the world actively with full agency, authority, and in service of being a productive citizen is to have a kind of personal freedom. And I want to help people be free to do what they can uniquely do in this world.
Concerning art and design, I believe that artists and designers can and do change the world. Every day. We inform and impact what is made, how it is made, and for whom it is made. We inform the narratives that drive so much human belief and behavior. We make things that enable people to live more fruitful, healthy lives. We are and have been vital to every significant social movement. In the middle of things, often quietly working, are artists, designers, makers, and performers who speak different languages—of the heart, body, and intellect—and impact those movements and how other humans see, understand, and engage with them. These are the ideals that animate me and why I remain an educator.
ID: You’ve said that you’ve had many roles, but at root, you’re a poet. How does this perspective shape your approach to education?
CW: To be a poet of any merit one must actively interrogate the self, the world around us, and envision a series of connections and possibilities—to inhabit and exalt a new way of seeing. I believe education also teaches and asks us to interrogate, to envision, and then it provides us with the skills and tools to act in accord with that knowledge.
Salman Rushdie once wrote, “A poet’s work is to name the unnamable, to point at frauds, to take sides, start arguments, shape the world, and stop it going to sleep.” Education stops the world from going to sleep, too.
ID: What most excites you about taking on the role as president of RISD?
CW: Everything. We have extraordinary students, staff, and faculty. And I mean that not in hyperbolic terms, but in literal ones. Our institutional imperative to advance art and design through liberal arts education and mastery of craft is an exemplar. So, I’m excited to help deepen those aspects of our institution. I’m excited to continue to work towards decoloniality. I’m eager to broaden our scope of focus to include other essential experiences that can only help make our artists and designers more equitably inclined, develop more substantial capacities to address society’s inequities, and produce work more reflective of and responsive to the entire human endeavor.
I’m also excited to begin to reach beyond our doors and walls to the wider world of art and design and identify new partnerships and collaborations in service of our young creatives and the wider art and design community (which, to me means, in service of the world).
ID: In what ways do you plan to expand on RISD’s existing efforts to improve diversity and inclusion and access to design education?
CW: I am motored by a core tenet: we are most powerful, creative, and effective when we value and amplify heterogeneity—and when we harness it in the service of others. Also, we live in a rapidly changing world. Those who can honor, respond to, and integrate the value of human heterogeneity into their work will, I believe, be the century’s most influential and dynamic interlocutors and leaders. Thus, providing students with the requisite skills and tools to effectively engage in such a dynamic world is imperative. That’s one goal; to help all of our students attain those skills and tools so that when they leave RISD, they become more effective interlocutors and leaders.
Another goal is to raise more funds to help support our ambitious financial aid goals. Ultimately, we’d like to ensure that every student admitted to RISD can attend, regardless of familial financial resources. Access to art and design education, especially the high-touch, hands-on education we provide at RISD, should be available to all creatives. I’m excited by the number of individuals with whom I’ve spoken, some of whom are RISD alumni and parents but others who are not, who strongly believe in the power of a RISD education. I have been buoyed by the many people who share this core belief and want to help support more students attending this special place.
Finally, a third, related goal is to ensure that once those talented students are enrolled, we have the requisite structures in place to enable them to–as graduates–knowledgeably navigate their respective fields, understand the business of art-making, and capitalize on every opportunity before them or to create new, dynamic opportunities.
ID: What does the future of design look like to you?
CW: Emerging designers are driving key conversations, and in many cases their work tends toward the creation of a more just, fair and sustainable society. With new materials, new ideas and—perhaps most importantly—new voices joining the chorus, the future of design looks exciting and bright.
ID: Where do you often find inspiration?
CW: Oddly, I find inspiration in the way dogs are in the world. They are relatively clear about their needs and goals. You just have to respect them enough to listen. And, for the most part, unless we’ve mucked it up for them, they want to be loved, to love, to be safe, and to eat (in the case of some, this order may be inverted). What I find inspirational about this is the clarity with which they communicate those needs and desires—and what they ask of us, which is to be in full, present community with them. I find that they remind me of our most essential selves and to eschew the world’s trappings for these more critical truths.
Other things I find particularly inspiring: students who are the first in their families to go to and graduate from college, people who renounce societal conventions and listen to their quietest but wise voice and follow it; people who are of service to others; people who seek and seek to grow all of the time. Essentially, the antithesis of stasis inspires me.
ID: What are you most looking forward to accomplishing in your new role?
CW: To advance and amplify RISD’s excellence, to open our doors wider, to ensure that all of our students can and do thrive, to help foster just societies, and to help prepare informed citizen—artists/designers/thinkers who will stop the world from going to sleep.
ID: What are you reading?
I’m dipping in and out of several books at once: “Bad Day at the Vulture Club” by Vaseem Khan, “A Black Gaze: Artists Changing How We See” by Tina M. Campt, “It’s Not Free Speech: Race, Democracy, and The Future of Academic Freedom” by Michael Bérubé and Jennifer Ruth, and “The Undocumented Americans” by Karla Cornejo Villavicencio.
ID: Is there an object in your home that is especially meaningful? If so, would you be open to sharing the story behind it?
CW: 25 or so years ago, my mother, who especially loved handmade crafts, had a woman who made dolls out of buttons and wood make a doll for me. The doll had hair made of yarn that more closely approximated my hair texture than traditional dolls at the time. And the doll’s “skin” had been dyed brown, not quite my skin tone, but close enough. And in the doll’s ‘hands” was a tiny (2″ x 1.5″) book, bound in gold paper (likely gold craft paper of some sort), titled “In Search of Aunt Jemima,” which is the title of a spoken word poem I wrote in my early 20s that had become a signature piece of mine. Mom was so proud that she also, in her tiny handwritten print, wrote out the entire poem on the book’s pages. And it’s a long poem!
The object is significant to me because my mother, who was white, went to extraordinary means to ensure I felt seen, heard, and honored—all of me, as an artist, as a Black woman, as a daughter. My mom did things like that all of the time. In its strange, horribly ugly prairie dress, the doll is now mounted on a wall in my house in a framed box and is easily the most beautiful thing I own. It is on a wall I see every day. And every day, I am thankful for my mother’s insight and understanding. I am grateful for her shunning societal norms of the day that said little brown girls like me weren’t all that special and indeed not special enough to be depicted on cards, made into baby dolls, or otherwise exalted as precious. That doll tells me, old as I am these days, that I was and am precious, as are we all.
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