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In Memorium: Alphonse Mattia

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Alphonse Mattia
1947 – 2023
Artist, Educa­tor, Furni­ture Maker, Mentor, Friend, Storyteller 

Alphonse Mattia died surrounded by family and friends on April 10, after a strug­gle with lymphoma. He was born in Philadel­phia in 1947 to Giovanni (John) and Josephine (Josie) Mattia (née Vasturo.) John immi­grated from Italy in 1921 and worked as a carpen­ter for the Philadel­phia Public School System while little Fonzie, a naughty altar-boy, skipped Sunday-school to play stick­ball with his friends on Spring Garden Street. Josie made dolls and orna­ments and loved baking, and had the softest hands because she always rubbed the butter in instead of washing it off. John sewed Josie the custom emerald green dress, and a match­ing tie for himself that they wore to Alphonse’s wedding in 1981. Alphonse carried his parent’s maker skills and sweet sensi­tiv­ity into his career as a wood­worker and teacher. He was known for his bril­liant creativ­ity and ability, incred­i­ble kind­ness and generos­ity, and devil­ish sense of humor.

He attended Roman Catholic High, where he was constantly getting his knuck­les rapped by the sisters and fathers for dilly-dally­ing and clown­ing around. Alphonse loved to draw, and built his port­fo­lio for UArts by drawing pictures from photos from an issue of Surfer Maga­zine that he bought on a news­stand. Prior to grad­u­ate school, he accom­plished his entire educa­tion on Philly’s Broad Street. 

After achiev­ing his BFA at the Univer­sity of the Arts in Philadel­phia in 1969, Fonse moved to Prov­i­dence for his MFA in Indus­trial design at RISD 73. There, he met and married Rosanne Somer­son. They settled in West­port MA, raising two daugh­ters Annie and Isabel. Rosanne and Alphonse taught Furni­ture Design at RISD for many years, and remained friends after their divorce. They estab­lished Smoke­stack Studios in Fall River, MA with dear friends Charlie Swanson and Eck Follen. Rosanne and Charlie were both with him on his final day. 

Through­out his profes­sional career, Alphonse influ­enced count­less students and colleagues. In 1973 he began teach­ing at Virginia Common­wealth Univer­sity, moving to Boston Univer­sity in 1976 where he was instru­men­tal in the estab­lish­ment of the hugely influ­en­tial Boston Univer­sity Program in Arti­sanry, which even­tu­ally became the Swain School of Design, and later moved into the art depart­ment at UMass Dart­mouth. The bulk of his teach­ing career was at RISD, followed by Indiana Univer­sity of Penn­syl­va­nia. He also taught at preem­i­nent craft schools includ­ing Haystack, Penland, Peter’s Valley, and Ander­son Ranch. His students describe him as a bril­liant, funny, and kind profes­sor who pushed them past their precon­cep­tions to find their unique voices. 

Alphonse could trans­form wood into his wildest imag­in­ings. His whim­si­cal, funny, and some­times irrev­er­ent work has been shown across the globe, and is held in collec­tions and museums includ­ing the Philadel­phia Museum of Art, The Museum of Art and Design in Manhat­tan, The MFA Boston, The Yale Univer­sity Art collec­tion, The Smith­son­ian Museum, The Fine Arts Museum of San Fran­cisco, and The RISD Museum. He is consid­ered a pioneer­ing and defin­ing voice of the Amer­i­can Studio Furniture movement. 

Along with his prolific furni­ture port­fo­lio and teach­ing prac­tice, Alphonse turned distrac­tion into an art form, He never met a napkin he didn’t draw on, and made fast and long-lasting friends easily in each of the diverse commu­ni­ties surround­ing his hundreds of seem­ingly random hobbies. He loved sweets, movies, tele­vi­sion, and air-condi­tion­ing, and could always derail a produc­tive meeting by slicing donuts into little pieces to share, and spoil­ing the plot twists from his favorite movies. His proud­est accom­plish­ment was to make a serious person laugh. He was an incred­i­ble story teller, and loved to read and write short-stories and poetry. His favorite poet was Tony Hoagland. In his final years, he fell in love with Merida, on the Yucatan Penin­sula of Mexico, visit­ing often and build­ing a community there. 

His influ­ence, mischief, and spark persists in all the lives he touched, includ­ing his three chil­dren, Annise and Isabel Mattia, and Dario Geske, beloved grand­daugh­ter Noemi, his custers” (cousins who were more like sisters,) Mari­anne Gilday, Theresa Dunek, and Helena Sprague and their fami­lies, his colleagues, friends, students, lovers, and just about every­one he met. He is deeply missed.

Hearing of his illness, many reached out to share the profound impact he had on them. Although unable to respond to all the sweet messages, he heard each one and was deeply grate­ful, though a little uncom­fort­able with all the praise. 

Alphonse even­tu­ally rebuked the Catholic Church, and was gener­ally unim­pressed with the concept of orga­nized reli­gion, but he did believe in rein­car­na­tion, and hopes to come back as a tree, or at least a really nice blade of grass.”

Two schol­ar­ships have been gener­ously estab­lished to carry on Alphonse’s legacy of inspir­ing emerg­ing makers, one at the Univer­sity of the Arts in Philadel­phia (contact apack@​uarts.​edu), and the second, hosted by The Furni­ture Society (contact monica.​hampton@​furnituresociety.​org) The family thanks Larry and Mickey Magid and Ronald Abram­son for their generos­ity in estab­lish­ing these schol­ar­ships, in lieu of flowers please consider support­ing these. Alphonse also wished to encour­age blood and platelet dona­tions, as he received many infu­sions during his treatment. 

A cele­bra­tion of life was held on Sunday, Septem­ber 24, 2023 at the Avon Cinema in Prov­i­dence, RI

Schol­ar­ship Links:

Univer­sity of the Arts

The Furni­ture Society


The Legacy of Alphonse Mattia

This video is a collec­tion of stories and images from a select few who knew Alphonse and were mentored by him. Orig­i­nally presented at The Furni­ture Society confer­ence — June 2023 in New Orleans, this video has been edited from the zoom and audio record­ings, and includes pre-recorded videos sent to TFS by those not able to attend in-person.

A special thank you to Mark Sfirri, Annie Evelyn, Rosanne Somer­son, and Isabel Mattia for sharing these memo­rable images, and an extra special thank you to Don Miller for the many, many hours he spent working with TFS to make both the presen­ta­tion at the confer­ence and this video a reality!