David Adjaye and A-Cold-Wall’s Samuel Ross on architecture, fashion, Covid-19, anti-racism, and the future of the creative industries
Portraits by Liz Johnson Artur
Architect David Adjaye (left) and fashion designer Samuel Ross (right), photographed via video call and in person, respectively, by Liz Johnson Artur after their Wallpaper*-chaired conversation on 24 June
Architect David Adjaye (above) and fashion designer Samuel Ross (below), photographed via video call and in person, respectively, by Liz Johnson Artur after their Wallpaper*-chaired conversation on 24 June
‘Architecture and fashion move away from each other, and then come really close, and then move away again,’ says Sir David Adjaye, on a video call from Accra. He is in conversation with Samuel Ross, stationed in London. It’s mid-summer and the world is in the grips of the Covid-19 pandemic and anti-racism protests. This is a transformative moment for both industries.
The architect behind the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, Adjaye was recently commissioned to create Brixton’s Cherry Groce Memorial and Abu Dhabi’s Abrahamic Family House. He continues to work on the landmark Ghana National Cathedral, and champion new African architecture and architects.
Ross, who founded A-Cold-Wall* in 2015, is a rising star of the fashion industry. A natural master of cross-disciplinary collaboration, he has partnered with brands as wide-ranging as Nike (to create emergency blankets upcycled from plastic bottles, with aspirations to make them freely available in parks), Apple, Converse, Diesel, Oakley and Dr Martens, as well as recently establishing a grant fund for Black creatives.
Their discussion covered the impact of technology, localised production, the politicisation of architecture and fashion, anti-racism, the effects of pandemic, and the future of creative industries. Right after, they were photographed – Ross in person and Adjaye via video call – by Liz Johnson Artur, who has dedicated her three-decade career to documenting people of African descent.
Adjaye Associates’ design for the Abrahamic Family House on Abu Dhabi’s Saadiyat Island, comprising a mosque, a synagogue and a church
Collaboration has long been key to Adjaye’s work. Artist Chris Ofili’s Within Reach, the British Pavilion at the 2003 Venice Biennale, designed with Adjaye and engineered by Charles Walker, Arup, featuring a glass sculpture titled Afro Kaleidoscope above the main gallery space
Wallpaper*: How does the responsibility of creating lasting works – as opposed to ephemeral ideas –influence your designs and process?
DA: There’s a bit of a myth with this idea of permanence, because nothing is really permanent, not even architecture. It all ends up disappearing. Architecture [just] has a larger duration.
SR: It all comes down to having the ability to quantify if a product should exist, which goes back to functionality and use.
W*: As a discipline, architecture can be really slow, whereas fashion feels faster – but that’s not always the case as the after-effects can last a long time.
DA: Fashion seems to be absolutely immediate, but [its] impact might be in the way we look at the bodies of males and females. [Take] for example the work of Yves Saint Laurent: it’s profound, it changes and resonates through generations.
SR: Totally. I kind of look at fashion like a moving slipstream. This idea of [how garments can serve] changes from generation to generation, as times move forwards and as social movements move forwards.
‘I kind of look at fashion like a moving slipstream. This idea of [how garments can serve] changes from generation to generation, as times move forwards and as social movements move forwards.’ — Samuel Ross
W*: How do the materials you use embody the ideas that you want to portray in your work? Does sustainability play into your material choices?
SR: I’ve dabbled with technical and synthetic materials, although I’m moving into more sustainable materials. There is a movement happening within big tech that needs to be integrated into fabrication, which can then define fashion as a whole for the 21st century. Fashion should mean smart materials and patented weaves that are antibacterial, that cling and mould to the body, versus just being about a point of expression.
DA: In the built environment, we spent the 20th century industrialising, making very efficient materials that will get things done fast. With speed came excess and pollution and degradation and destruction. Now we are asking, how do we build responsibly? In architecture, we are talking about microbial issues and creating healthy environments. That’s become much more heightened with Covid-19. We have to look at the things that destroy the planet – pandemics and ecological collapses – and really be responsive. I’m working with communities here [in Accra] and discovering that compressed mud has incredible properties that we totally underestimated. We just assumed that it was primitive, but actually it’s one of the best performing and most abundant materials on the planet.
W*: How much of your work is about educating people in your respective professions, to push your industries forwards?
DA: With all design there is a kind of public role, especially if you’re interested in pushing the limits of your industry. You deliver things to the public, so the public needs to be able to hold you accountable. I taught for about a decade and then I stopped, because I was teaching in elite schools to kids who are already very privileged. Instead, now I mentor and I’m interested in finding emerging voices that are not getting attention, trying to support them or to help them think about their businesses in the early stages.
‘I chose architecture because it was part of a language that I felt was very much under-represented from the position of a person of colour within the global discourse. I felt that I had a lot to say and I wanted to be part of that conversation about how we make the contemporary world.’ — David Adjaye
W*: How hard was it for you to break into the industry and find a foothold? What motivated you to choose your respective disciplines?
DA: I chose architecture because it was part of a language that was very much under-represented from the position of a person of colour within the global discourse. I wanted to be part of that conversation about how we make the contemporary world.
SR: This idea of having a hyper-intelligent approach to design, formed and carved by the Black hand, is still moderately new if it doesn’t default into, say, the status quo of streetwear or the more Parisian type of fashion. My job is to carve out this new ergonomic vernacular, and respond from a design perspective. DA: That is something that I really loved about your design practice and noticed about your work as you started to emerge. You are really understanding culturally what is happening and trying to make the architecture of the body of the 21st century. It is about you, but through your lens it feels very contemporary and relevant.
A look from A-Cold-Wall’s pre-S/S21 collection
Ross’ Beacon 1, presented at Serpentine Galleries as part of the 2019 Hublot Design Prize exhibition
W*: How important has the role of mentor or mentee been in your career? When you started out, could you identify Black creatives you related to?
DA: A real hero for me when I started was Joe Casely-Hayford. He was simply a man of colour doing really excellent work. And I thought, ‘Why don’t we have that in other places?’ It actually drove me to want to do it. I have a stubborn disposition. To be faced with ‘You can’t do this because…’, well, the ‘because’ better be damn good! It made me angry when I was younger. I’m much more chilled out these days.
SR: Mentors have been seminal to my journey. I shifted my direction [from product and graphic design] towards fashion to be a little more expressive. At that time, Virgil [Abloh] and Kanye West happened to come across my work, and I started working underneath the two of them. They were great mentors, able to articulate between Western European and North American ideologies, whilst having an intrinsically Black imprint on the work they were producing. They took these references to an industry, cross-referenced them through channels of mass communication, and built a new language and discourse that a lot of designers of my generation now operate within. From these two mentors, I learned how to communicate ideas and to have this ‘scatter diagram’ approach to zig-zagging across industries.
‘For me, the act, the statement, the building, is always political, it’s always making a statement about the world that we are in, it’s always positioning an ideal of some sort. The building isn’t mute, it speaks volumes about a certain world value and morality.’ — David Adjaye
W*: In terms of communication, is fashion more inherently attuned to marketing, whereas architecture is built on letting the work speak for itself?
DA: Absolutely. There’s a desire to depoliticise architecture continually, and I fight against that all the time. For me, the act, the statement, the building, is always political, it’s always making a statement about the world that we are in, it’s always positioning an ideal of some sort. The building isn’t mute, it speaks volumes about a certain world value and morality.
SR: The work I showed at Serpentine Galleries [Ross won the 2019 Hublot Design Prize], and the work I’m soon to do with Marc Benda from Friedman Benda gallery, is about that. I’m pivoting towards the long form conversation, and how we stabilise and re-chisel the playing field for the next generation.
W*: How does collaboration enrich your work?
DA: When I left the Royal College of Art I missed not being in a campus environment. I would collaborate across disciplines, with a scientist or a musician. When I did the Venice Biennale with Chris Ofili in 2003, we flipped roles – I said, ‘you design and I’ll do the visuals’. It was amazing to see my now dear friend talking about architecture, to learn what was interesting to him. It teaches you different ways of seeing the world.
SR: I’m a moderately sized brand, so collaboration offers access to tooling and technology. It’s also about having an opportunity to push forwards a social consciousness. I’m thinking how I can carry as much information through a macro partner, let’s say Nike, without being too cumbersome: can I hijack a community to a certain degree and fix the attention?
Moving forward, the idea of showing collections needs to be completely rearticulated.’ — Samuel Ross
W*: Practically, has Covid-19 affected your business?
DA: I moved to Accra as I’m doing a lot of work in West Africa right now. This decade feels like the decade of Africa to me. This pandemic has unleashed this new connectivity that I’m very grateful for. I have three offices on different continents, and most of my time was spent moving between those. And now it’s become very technologically based. What’s kind of amazing is that it all works! Apart from the amazing aromas that you miss, I love the aroma of construction sites!
SR: We’ve decided not to do two shows a year any more. This idea of a continuous critique to an open market every six months when you’re building and growing didn’t necessarily sit right with me in the first place, but I was willing to participate and spar and win in that arena to show a more intellectual Black approach within fashion design. But moving forward, the idea of showing collections needs to be completely rearticulated. We are looking at more personable presentations, which almost feeds back into the early days, when counter-cultural movements actually began to swirl and churn around fashion brands. I’m becoming a bit more hands on with discourse with consumers. We’ve been able to compress and condense down the modelling of the company. And be more emotive and sensitive to market needs. And take a lot more risk. I’m hoping that it will kick start a few other contemporaries in a similar situation to ourselves. §
Images: courtesy of Victoria Miro Gallery, Adjaye Associates and A-Cold-Wall*