Yichen Li 25 ID
May 2024

Exploring New Dimensions

Support from three scholarships helped Yichen Li 25 ID find his passion. 

As a high school student in Bedford, Massachusetts, Yichen Li 25 ID focused his energies on figurative oil painting while nurturing an interest in photography and helping produce a school magazine. Interested in painting as a medium for storytelling and exploring his Chinese heritage and identity—his family emigrated to the United States from Guangzhou, China when he was in middle school—he originally thought he would major in Painting at RISD. After his Experimental and Foundation Studies year, however, Li chose to major in Industrial Design. 

"My life took a transformative turn when I enrolled at RISD. The experience here has shifted my artistic focus from the two-dimensional world to the three-dimensional realm. I’ve discovered a deep passion for creating and designing tangible, interactive objects that blend abstract aesthetics with functionality,” Li says. 

In addition to building furniture and objects, he has built a nylon string classical guitar and an electric guqin, a seven-string Chinese musical instrument sometimes referred to as a Chinese zither. Building a musical instrument is a complex process, and Li, who taught himself about acoustics, worked closely with Industrial Design faculty and technicians who offered essential instruction and support. Peter Lutz, a critic who teaches the course Wood II, helped Li master the woodshop’s machines, and Senior Critic George Gordon was particularly helpful, Li says. “He was able to solve all my wood-related problems.” 

The material exploration that is at the heart of RISD classes has given Li a deep understanding of which woods are best for specific instruments. Cedar and spruce, for example, are most suitable for soundboards, he says, because of their weight-to-strength ratio. This means they are strong but flexible. Li is also a musician, and as someone who both makes and plays his instruments, he is able in a profound, direct way to connect how an instrument is made with how it will be played and the quality of sound it will produce. 

Every Saturday, Li takes the train to Boston for guitar classes, which offers him a chance to meet up in the city with family. His family, especially his mother, he says, have been deeply supportive of his creative path and choice to attend RISD. 

Helping Li along that path is financial aid. He is the recipient of the Fred M. Roddy Memorial Scholarship, the Aiden Petrie (MID 85) and Stephen Lane (BID 85 P 16 P 11) Scholarship and the Mary E. Wardwell Scholarship. Li feels honored to receive such financial support, he says, and is inspired to fully embrace all RISD has to offer. That includes working collaboratively on projects like a chair made with wood and metal elements. Group projects with peers who have different disciplinary strengths “works especially when the object needs expertise in different media,” Li says. He also has continued to investigate two-dimensional work and at times mixes it with three-dimensional work, like exploring bookbinding so he can create photo books. 

“My life took a transformative turn when I enrolled at RISD.”
Yichen Li 25 ID

Looking ahead, Li hopes to learn how to work with a computer numerical control (CNC) router, a machine designed to carve out complex shapes from soft materials like wood. CNC routers are often used in modern guitar-making or in creating things with complex curvatures. 

Such machinery is particularly helpful when making multiples of a design, Li says. “Once you stand up the process, you can iterate. But even if a piece is 99 percent machined, one percent of it is fixed by hand.” For that reason, he says, RISD’s emphasis on working with hand tools is critical. Post-graduation, Li is interested in the possibility of establishing his own studio and woodshop, making furniture, and perhaps apprenticing with a luthier. Until then, he says, “I am committed to making the most of this incredible opportunity.” 

Yichen Li 25 ID at work

To learn more about scholarship giving, contact Vice President of Institutional Advancement Amanda Clark MacMullan at 401 454-6532 or amacmull@risd.edu