In Memorium: Alphonse Mattia
1947 – 2023
Artist, Educator, Furniture Maker, Mentor, Friend, Storyteller
Alphonse Mattia Mirror
Alphonse Mattia Venus Chairs
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 firstname.lastname@example.org), and the second, hosted by The Furniture Society (contact email@example.com) 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
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!