By Glenn Adamson
How should we talk about design, today? The conceptual canon handed down from the past – functionalism, truth to materials, ergonomics, all the familiar vocabulary – remains instructive. But it is no longer fit for purpose. Knowing all we know about design and its freighted past, we need not only new works and new perspectives, but also a new language.
Samuel Ross is providing all three. In his short time as a practitioner so far – he started his fashion label A-COLD-WALL* in 2015, and his design firm SR_A in 2019– he has established himself as “the atypical protagonist” (his words), a creative force whose very presence reshapes the discipline. Part of his impact is in the sheer diversity and volume of his output. It feels way too early (and yet already impossible) to attempt a full accounting of this vast activity. More useful, perhaps, to focus on how Ross thinks about it. For words are just as important a medium for him as fabric and rubber, wood and steel. Indeed, the relationship between these two domains – terminology and materiality, the abstract and the concrete – is itself instrumental. The space between serves as a kind of distortion field, a refractory lens allowing for selective focus, and a discursive framework that binds together all of his many undertakings.
What follows, then, is a Lexicon. A core-sampling of ideas from the mind of this path-breaking, cross-disciplinary, contemporary creator.
No one starts from nothing. Long before Ross began to generate his own discursive framework, design history was happening to him. He spent his early years between Brixton, the fraught epicenter of London’s recent race relations, and Northampton, a town in England’s East Midlands. In both places, he found himself navigating a brutalist architectural fabric, constructed during the waning years of British modernism. The optimism that had attended the movement in its earlier, avant garde phase was well past, the vaulting ambition of postwar architecture having run headlong into the lived experience of actual residents. But if there was a growing awareness about the problems of centrally planned megastructures, that shift in consciousness had not yet come to council planning offices. Buildings that echoed the work of Le Corbusier, Allison and Peter Smithson, and Ernő Goldfinger, were built all over Britain in the postwar decades. They were still standing, more or less decayed, when Ross was born in 1991, and formed the backdrop of his formative years. He and his family lived in “Victorian terrace estates, jutted back to back against 1960s-1970s brutalist council housing areas and homes.” In Northampton, these adjacencies included the Hemmingwell Estate and the Greyfriars bus station – the latter dubbed “the mouth of hell” by a broadcaster, a name that stuck. (Built in 1972, the station was both universally loathed and perpetually dilapidated – mineral stalactites grew from its ceilings – and it was at last dynamited in 2015.) The experience left him with a complex conception of design and its social ambitions, and a correspondingly multivalent understanding of brutalism itself. It appears as an autobiographical leitmotif; a stylistic reference point; and a cipher of the infra-thin membrane between utopia and dystopia. The very word “brutalism” suggests that style can be a blunt, bludgeoning instrument. Ross respects that difficult truth.
Working at a breathless pace, for Ross, began as a personal necessity. He had to achieve escape velocity, just to get going. But speed of transmission has become much more than that. Today he thinks of velocity something akin to an artistic medium in its own right, a means of producing generative instability. “It arcs into tension,” he says. “Movement, asymmetry, imbalance.” Of course, this is nothing unusual in the fashion business – yesteryear’s seasonal changes (which already far outstripped anyone’s actual need to reclothe themselves) have accelerated to an absurdist degree. And where “fast fashion” has led, much of the rest of the economy has followed, borrowing from the garment industry’s system of just-in-time manufacture and distribution, frictionless media operations, and unhealthy disregard for climate change. Forget planned obsolescence. We’re way past that now, drinking from the firehose, swiping left right and center. Many designers and makers, faced with this reality, are impelled to stage a holding action, identifying themselves with an unattainable ideal of permanence. Ross is different: he chose fashion, his first primary métier, precisely because of its fluidity. He’s doubled down on that, meeting rapid fire with rapid fire, working just that little bit faster than the prevailing culture. It gives him the edge he needs to carve with. At the same time, when he and an idea catch up to one another in mid-flight, he holds it fast, executing with intense regard for materiality and use. This is true even in his fashion work, which stands apart from the typical cycles of the industry. And when creating still more durable artifacts, like his furniture works, the speed of his arrival is matched by an equal and opposite quality of monumentality: his objects anchor themselves tenaciously into the cultural firmament, holding their ground.
These competing forces of ephemerality and permanence, in Ross’s work, are self-conscious mirrors of the larger forces of history. And you know what history does: it makes ruins. Ross is fascinated by this effect, which he describes as erosion. Many of his designs (the star witness is a concept trainer he made for Nike in 2018) exemplify this visually – their making seems bound up with an equal and opposite unmaking. Superficially, this aesthetic tendency recalls deconstruction, a primary artistic methodology of the postmodern era. The idea back then was to operate within a given framework (say, architecture) and simultaneously undermine it, exposing the true conditions of its foundation. Ross is informed by that idea, but… what did Audrey Lorde say? “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.” So he adopts a different modality, grounded in material transformations. “Erosion: there is a space there that connects to craft and folk art,” he says, surprising me. “It links into the sentient properties of natural substances.” And he’s right, of course: traditions and materials deteriorate just as often as they evolve, their disintegration leaving in its wake leaving a thick narrative stratigraphy. By emulating these dynamics in his own procedures – composing and decomposing at once – Ross decenters himself and his audience, achieving what he calls “a wider sentience.” It’s organic design, shed of all sentimentality. Even radioactive minerals have a half-life.
Ross works in public. He keeps creative company with some of pop culture’s most recognized names and brands – Abloh and Apple, Dr. Dre and Dr. Martens. That means operating at comparably enormous scale. This term, scale, once meant strictly physical size, but has now (like so many other aspects of design) become abstract, as in the phrase “economies of scale.” Yet in the shift, the factor of visibility remains a constant. Just as surely as a gigantic building in the middle of a city, whatever Ross puts into the world will be seen. And he is keenly aware of the consequences. When something gets big enough, it encounters other big things, so many slicks spreading on the single ocean of social space. This, for him, is social architecture. It’s a phrase that hearkens back to the council housing of his youth (see brutalism, above). But as ever, Ross is leveling up, putting design on par with other pervasive technocratic systems, including government policy, private investment, and regulatory regimes. These spheres of influence interpenetrate, constantly contending with one another. If design is going to do anything at all, he knows – if it has any chance to inflect the course of the future – it had better be in the mix.
For Ross, then, design must be efficacious. His goal is to alter consciousness, no straightforward project in an attention-starved economy. From this perspective, velocity is nothing more than the price of entry into the technology-fueled slipstream. But for a design to land and stick, it needs more than speed. This has prompted Ross to think in ancient terms. He considers his works as analogous to magical implements or sacred artifacts. This is, in part, a way of reckoning with his own identity as a member of the African diaspora, his inheritance of a dispossession so total that, for countless millions, inner spirituality was the only thing that could be in any sense owned. Ross honors that legacy – wears it literally as a sleeve, in fact, in the geometric tattoos that cover his skin. (“Religious art,” he has said, “reigns across my upper body.”) The same principle enters his art and design work. The Trauma Chair, in particular, can be understood as diagrammatic, a mapping of the past’s collision into the present. Now, does such an object make change? That’s too limited a way of putting the question – collapsing inevitably into exhausted debates about the viability of the avant garde. To grasp Ross’s strategy (or spellcraft) we have to think not in the conventional terms of art-as-statement. We have to think about code.
The heart of the matter, now. Ross’s works are depth charges. He forges them using many intellectual tools, some of which (as should now be clear) are of his own making, others of which were imparted to him. One of the most important of the latter is double consciousness. In 1897 this phrase was defined by W. E. B. Du Bois as “the sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity.” Though Du Bois himself scarcely used the term again, it was developed by others, notably including Franz Fanon in Black Skin, White Masks, and Paul Gilroy in The Black Atlantic, and is today a widely used concept in theorizations of race and racism. For Ross, the implications of double consciousness are seismic. It means that the marginalized are also bifurcated, their very subjectivity split in two. From such a position, an act of self-expression is also necessarily an act of self-objectification, or at any rate, will inevitably be viewed as such. Encryption is his way of complicating this dehumanizing condition, maybe even finding a way out. It may seem somewhat paradoxical that this effect is secured by a process which sounds like it might be about secrecy or protection. In Ross’s Lexicon, however, the idea of encryption is spatial: it is the way to transform the relation between subjecthood and objecthood from a negative dialectic into a space of resonant reverberation.
Within that space of possibility, Ross is a shape-shifter, cycling constantly between disciplines and modes of address. Even by the standards of today’s cross-disciplinary creative economy he is a polymath, generating garments, footwear, furniture, interior architecture, sculpture, and performances in a constant interconnected flow. This Lexicon is, among other things, an initial attempt to map the territory that all these activities inhabit. But it is worth considering his scope as salient in itself. In his own words, this constant creative travel is “a means of connecting and de-mystifying.” It establishes a continuity within his own autonomous practice, expressed in terms of a shared aesthetic and haptics. Simultaneously, it disrupts business-as-usual within each of the domains he traverses – “the social dynamics and geographies,” as he says,” that continue to underpin the momentum between institutions, academia, culture and the wider society.” Elasticity thus figures, here, both as a personal characteristic – an ability to work flexibly across spheres – and also as a value system.
Ross encodes his diverse output in all sorts of ways – textual, visual, contextual –always interfering with the naïve expectation that an object will “mean” in some directly available way. It is important to distinguish this from the postmodern semiotic notion of “double coding,” which was about communicating simultaneously with two audiences, one insider/academic and one general. Arguably Ross’s work is also subject to a version of this effect, however, though in a nearly opposite polarity. To the extent that he has an “insider” audience – who can pick up immediately on what he’s putting down – that takes place on a vernacular plane. It’s an audience that tunes into the music and fashion channels. Normative design institutions, given their own cultural blind spots and biases, are more apt to miss the cues. Yet Ross is nothing if not inclusive: he traverses the whole space of culture, as if he were immune to the crushing gravity of its vertical, hierarchical orientation. He sometimes describes his work as “heuristic,” that is, enabling learning or discovery, for all who encounter it. That is how he intends to make change in the world.
“Pain,” Ross notes, “is not an abstract idea. It is a lived reality.” This is the hard place from which he thinks through issues of design’s functionality – or, as he prefers to say, servitude. That terminological shift, like others in this Lexicon, performs a transformative operation on the Western constructs so regularly and unthinkingly employed to analyze design. Ross’s idea of an object’s purpose is multi-perspectival, very much taking into account the object’s point of view (see erosion, above). Whether this is meant literally or metaphorically doesn’t much matter; what’s important is that our relation to the object is understood in terms of power dynamics, capturing in microcosm the asymmetries with which the wider social fabric is shot through. There are parallels here with the fashionable theory known as Object Oriented Ontology, but Ross’s way of thinking perhaps has more in common with Yoruba cosmology, which postulates a quasi-sentience in everyday things. A leather shoe might be symbolic of suffering, for example, because it’s always stepped on; a metal spoon, similarly, because it is plunged into boiling stew again and again. Again, the point is not to pretend that artifacts and people are ethnically or spiritually equivalent. Rather, it is a way to disrupt the moral economy in which human interests are pitted against one another, and objects are mainly understood as commodities or possessions, and open up a more subtle, poetic set of relations between ourselves and the things in our midst.
“There is no reality except in action. Man is nothing else than his plan.” That is Jean-Paul Sartre, offering the cogito of Existentialism – a philosophy to which Ross has a profound attraction. Another Lexicon, at least, would be required to work through the details of that intellectual allegiance; suffice to say here that he rejects any conception of identity as given a priori, rather than perpetually chosen. This sets him at odds with popular ideas about identity, particularly on the left, where a great deal of emphasis is laid on embodiment (as in the commonplace phrase “black and brown bodies”). That was an important starting point for Ross, too. But over time he has transited to quite a different conception of the self, which, in keeping with his ideas about subjectivity (see encryption, above), is premised on extreme mobility. Of late he has taken to using the term diaphragm to describe this fluid positionality. Not incidentally, this is a body part, the abdominal membrane that propels breath out of the body and draws it back in – a life-giving oscillation. But a diaphragm can also be a piece of technical apparatus, which separates two conditions (inside/outside, full/empty, pure/contaminated) and manipulates them with respect to one another. Ross has a powerful sense of moving through life like that.
And this brings us, at last, to articulation. This is what we’ve been dealing with all along, of course; Ross has developed his distinctive way of thinking through design, his unique conceptual apparatus, precisely to articulate what matters, in the sense that a skeleton or a machine, a poem or a sermon may be articulated. Here in conclusion, however, we may step back to reflect on the intensity of this intellectual enterprise, Ross’s sheer drive to theorize. This is not the norm in the fashion industry, needless to say, nor in the design sector more generally. And perhaps it’s no surprise that Ross’s eloquence has sometimes been misconstrued as a kind of self-conscious performance. He observes, however, that what might seem like esoteric language can also be a kind of vernacular – just as subcultural dress, music, and slang, which may seem opaque to the uninitiated, can also capture collective instinct. It may be that we live in a post-subcultural age, defined more by social media than social groups; be that as it may, Ross is maneuvering across the contemporary cultural space somewhat as punk and hip-hop did in their day, traversing the spaces between the city street, the art world and the halls of academia with seeming ease.
Just as this Lexicon was being assembled, Ross was informed that he was to be given an honorary doctorate by the University of Westminster – about five miles, and a world away, from Brixton. His intellectual bona fides are conferred and confirmed. What does this most recent recognition of his work signify about his cultural position, and that of the many disciplines intersecting in his work? Again, it’s too early to say for sure. For all that he has achieved, Ross is just getting going, and the future formulations of his thought are impossible to predict. One thing is for sure, though: his work will continue to speak volumes, for everyone out there listening.