There are designers, and then there is British designer Samuel Ross. He is something of an anomaly in the design world and now, in the art world, too.
Ross, who has described himself as an “atypical protagonist,” is known as the founding designer of streetwear brand A-Cold-Wall*, with its trademark oversized hoodies, angular windbreakers and otherworldly sneakers. He is also known as a mentee of the late Virgil Abloh, with whom he worked in his early 20s before founding his own label at the age of 25 in 2015. His abstract, angular fashion work has been called “conceptual design,” so it only makes sense that he also has a foot in the art world.
Ross recently opened his second solo show—and first in New York City—at Friedman Benda gallery. A man who loves all caps (he spells his brand out as A-COLD-WALL*), Ross titled his latest exhibition COARSE. It showcases six new sculptural works made of granite, steel, concrete and aluminum, alongside a handful of drawings.
According to Ross, the new works look at the interplay “between materials, body, landscape, industrialization and geography.” But what they really call to mind are glorified park benches for the jet set or industrialized coffee tables.
But this makes sense when you consider that the artist comes from an industrial design background.
Ross has a graphic design and illustration degree from De Montfort University in Leicester and worked as a product designer for agencies and brands like Converse, Mercedes-Benz and Oakley, before founding his fashion line in 2015. In 2019, he founded Samuel Ross & Associates, an industrial design studio that has worked on design projects with Apple, Nike, Hublot and other brands.
The pieces on view at the gallery are simple but smartly designed. Slab uses two granite slabs bridged together by a green painted steel tube that could be a welcoming seat or a low sculpture that invites some sort of view before or behind it. Meanwhile, a piece entitled Border is made of charred black fired wenge wood with aluminum and steel detailing and feels like it belongs on the set of rustic film or a design-forward woodsy cabin.
While we know Ross as a designer, his artworks do have a design feel to them, but they are still art. He uses gentle strokes of yellow spray paint in his piece Anesthesia I in a way that brings a Mark Rothko touch to concrete, while Birth at Dawn, made of granite, glass fiber and concrete, has a red steel window that looks inside a hollow chamber.
This work may be titled COARSE, but it is anything but. Ross looked at the history of West African furniture as a starting point, and how pieces represent community. The artist writes that they “carry memory, intentions and philosophies from the heartland in which they originate.”
He also refers to the words of W.E.B. Du Bois, who wrote in his 1903 book The Souls of Black Folk, about the concept of “double consciousness.” Du Bois defined it as “the struggle African Americans face to remain true to black culture, while conforming to the dominant white society.”
Ross creates worlds within worlds, and social codes make up much of his design and artwork. The only thing missing from this six-piece exhibit are people to inhabit them. Maybe one day.
COARSE is on view at Friedman Benda through June 17.