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What is next for Samuel Ross

  • Words Ayla Angelos

The polymath in conversation with Ayla Angelos

Samuel Ross, among many other things in the last 12 months, has shown his art at the White Cube gallery in London, launched ACW’s SS24 collection, exhibited his editioned pieces of furniture at Friedman Benda in New York, and unveiled his designs for mass-produced bathroom fittings for Kohler. He is 33 years old.

This apparently random range of enthusiasms is more than brand extension. Ross’ Land exhibition at the White Cube was a powerful collection of sculpture fabricated from sheet steel and sombre paintings. Some of the assemblies of steel pieces welded together were finished in vivid orange, bright yellow and oxblood paint, suggesting to some eyes the early work of Anthony Caro. The canvases are soaked in paint, suggesting collapsed landscapes and supine bodies. Ross sees them as an exploration of Black experience, and that they are the beginnings of a pictorial lexicon for what British Caribbean abstraction could look like. ACW, or A-COLD-WALL*, to spell out the brandname in full, is a fashion label that Ross began from his home 10 years ago. It has bricks and mortar – actually steel and concrete – concept stores in Shanghai and Beijing, as well as Harrods and Selfridges. He sold his stake in the business to his partners in February. Ross’ gallerist in New York, Marc Friedman, describes him as one of the most multifaceted talents he has ever worked with. Ross studied graphic design at De Montfort University, Leicester, then worked with Virgil Abloh. And now he is only just getting started.

Work from the Land exhibition

Where did it all begin?

I was fortunate to be moulded and shaped as a child by my parents who are two practicing artists and educators. My father studied at Central SaintMartins and majored in fine art but then became a stained glass procurement specialist. He restores stained glass windows for cathedrals and churches around the world as well as being a practicing artist.My mother is a painter but also a lecturer primarily in sociology and psychology. I was home schooled for a large portion of my childhood, so the idea of having a regulated tract didn't really exist. I spent a lot of time between the Caribbean islands and the UK, in-between Brixton and rural Northamptonshire. There is this multiplicity almost to the way in which I experienced the world from quite a young age. I don't come from a capitalist inclined background, I’m the one who's more interested in consumer goods, products and transactions related to expression. My parents won't engage in those types of conversations. The idea of expression was always at the forefront, and I have early memories of building pinhole cameras from scratch with my father. We were quite heavily involved in local DIY-engineering communities, like the Homebrew Computer PC movement of the mid to late-90s. Collecting archival Apple Macs was a huge part of my childhood.There’s a stark contrast between growing up in the city and the Northamptonshire countryside. I can imagine that had quite an influence on your language as a designer, but also as a person. This was the era of New Labour and, as a market town, it was still relatively prosperous. You had waves of immigrant overspill into Wellingborough for over three decades or so, hence why we were also there. It had a similar makeup to Leicester; Leicester is the only city in the UK that has a white minority. Wellingborough had a really strong South Indian, Southeast Asian and Afro-Caribbean community mixing with a lot of white working class. So, the idea of Britishness and growing up was quite dynamic, where you would go to the park and see complete integration of who you're playing cricket or football with. It wasn't as divisive as it is now, I'd say.

I moved up full-time from Brixton at the age of four, so my first core memories, which are etched into my existence, are of being carried on my mother's shoulder in Brixton market and Brixton Hill. I would turn my head and only see a sea of Blackness, only Caribbean faces. These are my first memories of England. When I started to age and live outside of London, then this wider view of Britain opened up.

Mirror Mirror, on display at Chatsworth as part of its 2023 exhibition

What attracted you to study graphic design and product design?

Initially, I was going to go directly into fine art and major in illustration. But I think the ailments of coming from a pretty liberal house, which didn't necessarily prioritise economics, led me to make more pragmatic decisions in terms of discipline. I was concerned about what the market actually looked like at that point, where I would fit into it and if it would satisfy the fireI have for trade and communication. The alchemy of visual communication is so enthralling. It's almost like burning a stick of incense, where it conveys so much more than what can be expressed through its apparition, like the scent, the heaviness, the sweetness, that act itself. All of those types of semantics and semiotics are taught to you when you go and pursue visual communication. Early memories of being stimulated by Apple products, and understanding how it was down to creative choices; I wanted to be able to make those types of choices in the future to affect people.

You began interning for Virgil Abloh, who was not only a friend but became a mentor. Can you tell me about this experience?

There became a point in time where I cross-analysed what I had been reading and studying and what I was doing. I didn't feel as though there was an upward trajectory, which could be pursued working for private, independent design companies. I started looking beyond that remit. I was already partaking in elements of street culture; I started a T-shirt brand when I was in university, and I was the guy at that house party who was handing out business cards for people to check out the products. I was doing a lot of pasted street art at night in the city. I was scoring and self-filming short videos. But at this time, it felt quite exploratory and it was quite undefined. Those traits would then go on to assist with working with Virgil, because he needed someone who could work across several different disciplines. Because I had that curiosity across the different fields, I could do it. He found my Instagram profile and he emailed me. I put out the email last year, and it went viral for some short time. It grounded how the meeting happened. It wasn't as though he saw my profile and sent me a fire emoji, it was really formal. This was 12 years ago.

(Left) Untitled; (middle) Concave, 2022; (right) Land at the White Cube 2023

You went on to found A-COLD-WALL* in 2015, what were your reasons for setting up that label?

There are two components to it. The first is that I had spent the last four years of my life travelling with Virgil and becoming part of a global creative community, which is primarily based in America. If you look at that canon of who were Virgil's contemporaries, and who he reported into, they're all American – Jerry Lorenzo, Heron Preston, Justin Saunders, obviously Virgil himself. They're all American. I'm British and European. After travelling on these excursions, it was clear that whatever I had to say, within that class of consumer goods, wasn't going to be what they had to say, because the origin story is completely different. Though the affinity and understanding of the American or global experience was there. The actual crux of it was from a dissertation that I wrote at the end of my studies, which was the alchemic properties of how apparel and menswear can transform and move you across different class systems.The only difference was A-COLD-WALL* was about capturing the unseen, this architectural projection that comes from the underclass and the working-class experience; the environments, palettes and textures, but also the sharing of materials between South Kensington and Lewisham, and how material becomes the denominator of class through architecture. It all stemmed from a life experience and then it was about conveying that through the product. The beauty of that narrative is that, because it's all just like a postmodern experience, you can scale it and project it on most macro economies, which is why A-COLD-WALL* was able to be applied into differ-ent demographics quite easily.

You’ve described your clothing as armour, which I thought was a really interesting way to put it. Can you tell me about that notion?

It’s the history and the personification of what we want, particularly the items in menswear. I think about a brass or bronze chest plate and the gilets that we create, and it's the same type of vernacular or archetypes that are age-old. How do you recontextualise what's already known, and make sure that it's appropriately placed for modernity? Part of my contribution to menswear is trying to correct what masculinity can be and tapping into some of those antiquated views. I feel kind of relevant in the dichotomy of how we engage with image and identity. For example, it's not by chance that the viral meme of December was about how often you think about Rome. It also translates to the trend cycle of how many gilets we've been able to sell that have a tension in the pleating that is reflective of two millennia of armour. It's all within the same type of channel of thought when it comes to the psyche of menswear and the truth in how men often want to feel when they buy clothes from my particular ilk of designers. The ilk isn't a race ora diaspora thing, it's more a proposition of what mens-wear and masculinity could potentially be. And we often frack, mine, refine and clean it up, but leave elements of it quite feral and open. It goes back to the idea of removing the smog and this synthetic layer of what it means to exist now and be part of the day-to-day norms. The resurgence of athleticism is also tied to this wanting for something which feels slightly more assured and maybe not aged, but as though it comes from some type of genealogy or lineage of sorts when it comes to identity. Clothing is a huge proponent of that.

You then started to veer more into product design and launched your own design studio, SR_A.

SR_A is now turning four years old. I first put together the business model for what SR_A could potentially solve in early 2019. Part of it is looking for these ways to extend a particular perspective and sensibility beyond clothing, and into more of a world oran ether. You start thinking about the blazer, the pants, the short, the attire and what feeling that has to offer, but also the environment it-self. You start thinking about the temperature, the scent and the type of experience you'd like to be paired with the garments, which brings you into the solid objective and form. You start thinking about how some of the virtues or perspectives that you hold in fashion could also be applied to public space. I also partly found that, for the rigour of conversation I wanted to have, the arts and design felt slightly more appropriate. Fashion is more so based on the servitude and the experience that you offer the end user.

The studio has this industrial but also artisanal mindset; I see industrial as being perceived for the masses, while artisanal as more traditional and less mechanical. How does this pairing play out in the processes and materials of your creations?

I think that it plays out specific to the particular project or the needs of the client. There are times where, as a brand and as an identity, having that tension point between the ultra-harsh industrial perspective, the synthesised perspective, and then having the artisanal craft in quiet rooms, a cool ephemeral perspective, work really well in terms of a visual literacy. There's this tension point, which means there's no fatigue in terms of what the audience experiences. You're tapping into all types of mythology tied to craft, heritage, location, the British archetype and identity, and it can sometimes soften and make it more approachable by using figurines, characters, animation and archetype. On the other side, you've got the pristine and at times quite analytical arm, which is asymmetry, synthetic use of colour, and an almost VR and AR richness. Those are the two pillars and codes of the house, you could say.

Acrylic drawings on canvas

You returned to painting during Covid and held your inaugural solo exhibition Land at White Cube Bermondsey in 2023, exhibiting a series of abstract paintings and sculptures. How does this interlink with your past and present disciplines?

I thought it was important to show a slightly more intimate and private component of my practice, which is fundamentally a huge part of who I am before it is a product. This is why abstraction was selected versus figuration, which is trending for Black artists. I have no interest in figuration, I think it is absurd and I have no interest in it at all. That’s not to say that there aren’t incredible portraiture painters and drawers out there, but I personally have no interest in the external and just replicating that. I think that to simply purport physiology feels a bit trite at times. I'm much more interested in the interior self that we all have to offer; how wide one's nose is is nonsensical. Hence why abstraction was selected.

I continue to paint and I'm now considering the type of relationship I want to have with the art world, straddling the line of partaking in similar shows when appropriate, but also not necessarily becoming employed by the art world. That's not necessarily the pursuit I have. It’s more like a historic issue of filling voids of untold stories in a particular medium of painting, rather than art for money. I already trade commercially in two other disciplines; thus I wouldn't wish to trade so close to my sense of self or my essence. At that point, there is nothing sacred. The art space is the one space which is incredibly sacred to me and still remains quite private actually.

A new bathroom fitting project made in collaboration with Kohler, 2024, courtesy Kohler Co.

After launching the Formation 01 faucet with Kohler last year, you’re now collaborating on a project for them that launches in Milan in April. Can you speak more about this?

When you engage with the product in person, several questions come up. These questions arise in the same way as experiencing, say, the first time you see a Henry Moore sculpture in Kensington Gardens – the who, what, why, how and when. There's this tension of newness that is brought about by the ambiguity of performance, which is what young designers should be doing. We're supposed to try and discern what is next versus just copying another post-modern or mid-century design. It's already happened, it's dead; we can't live as ghosts in a previous shadow, we need to turn to newness in the future. That's my job as an artist and designer – to go into darkness and find newness through shape, form, material, language and experience. When you engage with both the toilet and the sink, you will not know what these objects are until you touch, go close and export the function of the objects. Part of the strength of the forms is that they solicit you to engage with them. It comes from a curiosity standpoint, from an expressive standpoint and also from an engineering standpoint, where we've filed multiple patents of material on water flow along this process. It's a really special and rare project that will push the needle in water solutions and how they are delivered for decades to come. It’s an advent shift.

A new bathroom fitting project made in collaboration with Kohler, 2024, courtesy Kohler Co.

How does it feel to have sold something that has been such an important part of your work?

I look at it from the concept of time and how I’ve spent a third of my life building out one particular perspective. You may only get eight to nine decades if you're lucky, and I've had one of those decades allocated to A-COLD-WALL*. There always needs to be this threshold of newness. For me, you should have a renewal every eight to 10 years.

What's the next step?

There will be more products, garments and apparel that will fall under a different moniker. It’s really exciting to have someone else say it versus me say it.