There is a lazy and fast-paced take on Samuel Ross that positions him as a mere sidekick of Virgil Abloh and a younger British grape. The two have had superficially similar career paths, building international fashion brands around streetwear staples – Off-White in Abloh’s case, A-Cold-Wall * in Ross. Neither went to fashion school, but both have what Ross calls “skills”; Abloh studied architecture, Ross illustration, and graphic design. They have both collaborated with major sportswear brands, notably Nike, to a mutually beneficial effect.
Samuel Ross at 180 The Strand in London, an iconic brutalist building turned creative hub, now home to the British designer’s studio. Portrait by Liz Johnson Artur
Both share a fierce work ethic and what may sound like imperial ambition; they can appear as calculating and hyper-intelligent engineers of contemporary desire and mechanisms of influence and status. And they’re both, of course, black males in what is still largely a white males business. In truth, it’s not that one has followed one another, but that both have understood and have come to redefine luxury, new brand-building possibilities, and a creative practice built around collaboration and collaboration. transdisciplinary activity. Following in the footsteps of Kaws, Kanye, Takashi Murakami and Tom Sachs, they know that the distinctions between street art and fine art, streetwear and catwalk, commerce and activism have all but disappeared. Or rather, that the boundaries between these categories are the most interesting and transformative places.
Both also created sculptural objects and furniture. Ross and designer Jobe Burns formed Concrete Objects in 2017, to create “functional and aesthetic objects” inspired by Bauhaus and brutalism. In 2019, he launched SR_A, “a studio operating in the fields of luxury industrial design, interior installation, architecture, furniture design, sound design and sculptural / visual communication” . That year he received the Hublot Design Prize. And, as he puts it, his A-Cold-Wall * shows were, in fact, large-scale sculptural installations.
Designer furniture by Samuel Ross, and its Design Miami showcase
‘Rupture’ coffee table
Earlier this year, under the aegis of SR_A, he created three chairs, “Recovery”, “Signal-3” and “Trauma”, which were later acquired by the Friedman Benda Gallery in New York. Never short of conceptual ambition, Ross conceived the collection as a follow-up to 300 years of black experience, heart-wrenching dislocation, shattered and reclaimed identity, and class struggle. And, remarkably, they function as a new take on the most essential of design typologies. The ‘Trauma’ chair, as the name suggests, is particularly powerful. Large and imposing, like an African tribal throne, it is constructed of burnt oriented strand board (OSB), lacquered with a mixture containing molasses and dotted with punch-cut holes. It speaks of torture, slavery, wounds, scars and healing, and has already been acquired by the Dallas Museum of Art.
At this year’s Design Miami, Ross and the gallery will present two new series of work. ‘Rupture’ features a coffee table, stool and chaise longue, all in marble and steel, and ‘Amorphous Strand’, two benches in baked steel and OSB. These functional sculptures – long in the planning and signaling a new commitment to work in the “fine art” space – seem to achieve the specifics of Samuel Ross, which makes him a unique designer and creative practitioner. “Putting these materials together seemed pretty important to me,” he says. “This signals the permanence of my passage to design objects, to the fine arts. I have always been focused on reconstructed materials, and I was interested in how one can allude to the idea of propagation. And these materials were fibrous and malleable, a little more elastic. It seems much more concrete.
“I’ve been working on this in private for five or six years. The real attraction of the art and design space is having time to think, and time to iterate, jot down, doodle, and sketch. Time to add to a cultural dialogue ‘- Samuel Ross
While the harsher materiality of the new pieces marks Ross’s new commitment to sculptural investigations, they are also part of a long-term conversation about craft, engineering, and technology that began in his childhood. “I think a lot has to do with perspective and identity,” he says. “I was brought up by two artists. My mother is a painter, my father is a stained glass window and a painter. Both went to art school and both tried their hand at design. I am the product of a highly educated family that values art and material, so there is this tale of making, crafting and experimentation. And at the start of A-Cold-Wall *, I was really looking for ways to incorporate the artisanal touch and unique patinas. ‘
This mapping of industrial and artisanal processes has been a long-standing concern for Ross: “I’ve been working on this privately for the past five or six years. And there has been a lot of learning; how to work with the materials, the fabrications, the layers of engineering that come into play. ‘ Now he is confident that he can say what he wants to say in these forms, materials and processes. And he wants to keep doing it. “There is an emotion, a sensitivity, there is an expression, but there is also a desire, a need and a desire to learn as much as physically possible about the material,” he says. “This physical process is so important. It’s not just about what I want to do, it’s about the most effective way to convey something.
Samuel Ross universe
An unfinished bench, made of steel and baked OSB
Ross is always generous in crediting mentors, confidants and other influences. And he says conversations with Black Chicago-based artist Theaster Gates helped shape his thinking about new design pieces. “He’s trained in town planning, crafts, engineering and carpentry, he understands the semantics of materials, how they can convey a message. ”
Ross has always understood the potential of the material as a message. He was working as a freelance artist and designer and had started a streetwear label 2wnt4 as a side project when, in 2013, Virgil Abloh messaged him on Instagram. Abloh was working on his Pyrex Vision project and was interested in Ross’s work. Ross interned at Abloh while creating Off-White, before becoming a design assistant in both Off-White and Kanye West’s design studio, Donda.
He started A-Cold-Wall * – which he calls “a material study for social architecture” – in 2015, when he was only 24 years old. Backed by a 2,000-word dissertation, A-Cold-Wall * was designed to be a true brand and not just a conceptual experience, but it also coded a particular view of race, class, and experience. British blacks.
Commercial success came quickly, but it may have come at a conceptual cost, or at least diverted Ross’s energies. Functional sculpture offers more space to talk about what he wants to talk about: “The attraction of the art and design space is really to have time to think, and time to iterate, to note. , doodle and sketch. Time to add to a cultural dialogue, ”he says. “It’s a completely different mindset from developing clothing on a scale today. It’s just as rewarding, but with clothing I’m really looking for issues to solve, in the supply chain, the costs of the materials, the way we communicate with our audience. With the design work I feel I can add to the thought channels. I want to make sure there is a balance in what I call the agnostic truth about what it is to be British Black; to cross the class system, to have this dislocated relationship with Africa and West Africa because I am West Indian. ‘
The new pieces also address Ross’s relationship with the promise of modernism and ideas around functionality, service and affirmative action in the public realm. He wants to leverage everything he knows about design in the digital space and his intelligence in street art and streetwear to present the work and ideas behind it to a different audience: “Democratization art and design was something I racked my brains out because it’s a closed space for the most part. And so every type of work exists in AR and VR, and as a 3D object, to engage this larger and younger audience. ‘
Ross is known to be difficult to follow in the conversation; he has an intense hunger for ideas, concepts, theoretical systems. Inevitably, the lack of diversity in design, and the means to address it, also commands much of its energy and attention. He also understands that there is a model that he, Abloh, and others have helped redefine. It is a model centered on “plurality, meritocracy and design, disciplines and deliverables”. It’s about hard skills, hard work, clear intentions and working through mediums, speaking in a range of voices – much like his biggest influence, Italian designer Massimo Vignelli.
We’re talking about the wave of young architects and designers of color launching their careers with this kind of energy and creativity, using film, print, theater, digital media and more to explain their work and practice. . “It’s become the new normal and it’s very optimistic,” says Ross. “It’s good to see people come down off the cliff and understand that we all have limited time and that if we really want to go we should be at high risk.” §