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Q&A: Female Design Council Grant Winner: Mia Wright-Ross

One of the two winners of the organization’s inaugural grant tells GRAY about her design background, the inspirations behind her work, and what’s next for 2021.

Edited for length and clarity by Rachel Gallaher

Images courtesy of Mia Wright-Ross

Sculptural art by designer Mia Wright-Ross "The double-Aimed struggle" black tangle shapes on white background

A piece from designer Mia Wright-Ross' grant-winning collection, "The double-Aimed struggle."

New York-based leather artisan, designer, and educator Mia Wright-Ross is one of the two winners of the Female Design Council’s inaugural juried grant, GRANT 01, which was designed to support the ideas of Black female designers in the United States and to further its commitment to champion equity and gender parity in design. The two $2,500 grants are meant to provide emerging designers with the financial resources needed to bring their ideas into prototyping and/or production.

Wright-Ross received a BFA in Fashion Design from Parsons the New School of Design and has trained at the Ecco Tannery Holland and Arsutoria Institute in Milan. Her luxury lifestyle brand, MWR Collection, offers handmade bespoke footwear, accessories, home goods, and furniture. Through her current practice, Wright-Ross explores expressionist iterations of leatherwork, including leather sculptures, tapestries, and installations. Wright-Ross is currently a faculty member at Parsons School of Design, and she previously worked as a footwear and accessories designer for brands including Tibi, 3.1 Phillip Lim, and Calvin Klein.

On the occasion of her grant award, GRAY reached out to learn more about Wright-Ross’ work.

How did you become interested design in the first place? Was there any particular person, event, or interest that opened those doors of creativity for you?

My introduction into the world of art and design came from my older cousin Jeffrey Hieskill. He took me under his wing and taught me how to draw. He would show me how to draw characters and cartoons and allowed me to color in all of his sketches. He passed away when I was eight years old. From that moment on, I found safety in my creative practice. It was a way of connecting with him, even through his passing. This is how I found my healing practice of art and design. I am proud to say that I am still connected to the creative practice that Jeff unearthed in me.

What is your design philosophy and why do think design is important (other than just creating objects)?

Any time I am asked this question, I ground myself in my artisan mantra. I created this mantra as a means to remind myself and other artisans that the reason for our making is to communicate with ourselves, our hands, and our community. My artisan mantra states “I commit to this practice. I commit to this practice as a commitment to myself. I commit to this practice for the benefit of myself. I commit to the skills and knowledge growing within myself. I commit myself to this practice.” My design philosophy is grounded in connectedness. The commitment is a driving force that centers humanity and community—not product. It filters into how I think about solving problems and improving the human experience with each object designed.

Profile portrait of Designer and leather artisan Mia Wright-Ross black woman braids blue top leather strap bad

Designer and leather artisan Mia Wright-Ross.

Your grant-winning project, “The double-Aimed struggle” taps into some deep cultural and historical contexts including the work of W.E.B. Dubois, the work of Black artisans (both contemporary and historical), and leather as a medium. Can you talk about this more? What was the aim or what were you trying to communicate through this work?

As with my recent works exhibited during my inaugural solo exhibition, A Moment To Breathe, I am working in a sculptural process with leather cording to create abstract objects that explore the balance of what it is to exist as a Black Artisan in the contemporary context—to be seen or not to see. I am examining this subject through the lens of lighting fixtures/objects as I want them to serve as “guiding lights” in representing my predecessors in art, fashion, and design who go unnamed, unrecognized, and discounted as mere seamstresses or sewers. “A double-Aimed struggle” serves as a historical reference of Black Artisans of the past, an emotional representation of contemporary struggles of present-day artisans, and a “guiding light” for young artisans of the future.

Leatherwork is an ancient craft that still flourishes today. What first drew you to this medium and how do you balance its utilitarian stereotype with the nuances of contemporary design?

My first experiences with leather came from my childhood. When I was young, my mom would take me with her to have her handbags cleaned and serviced. The smell of leather in the workshop is what first drew me in. But it wasn’t until my years at Parsons School of Design that I had the chance to work with leather intimately. In my Junior year, I met my footwear professor and mentor, Howard Davis. He taught me all of the technical knowledge around leather and its use throughout the fashion industry. This foundation of education allowed me to explore leather as a medium itself and not just as a material that can be exchanged for another. Leather has its own life—its moves, changes, and learns you as you engage with it. With this knowledge, I integrate these characteristics in the ways I manipulate leather through sculpture and object making—ensuring a connectedness between the viewer, the medium, myself as an artisan, and the process that brings everything into one space.

Video from Wright-Ross' recent multimedia exhibition, "A Moment to Breathe," at New York's Museum of Arts and Design.

A lot of your work lands in the fashion arena (bags, accessories, clothing items) … why pivot to lighting? Is this something you plan to continue to explore?

I don’t see it as a pivot. It is just another object worth exploring. As the founder of luxury design atelier, MWR Collection, I am always thinking of ways to improve the human experience through objects be it in fashion, home, lighting, etc. I never want to limit the capabilities of my philosophy and how it may be able to grow. So, for this project, lighting it is.

What’s next for you? What are you working on now?

I recently moved into my first design atelier and am setting up an apprenticeship program. I truly love teaching, so this apprenticeship program will allow me to continue educating young designers in my community through leathercrafting and expanding MWR Collection. Also, I am scheduling private studio visits with galleries, art collectors, art dealers who are interested in acquiring my work, both abstract and object-based.

Sculptural art by Mia Wright-Ross The double-Aimed struggle collection black tangled shapes black pedestal white background

A piece from "The double-Aimed struggle collection.


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