Charles L. Ross is the innovative art director responsible for the current style and texture of high- end shelter magazines. Even though he has been retired for many years, when you thumb through Architectural Digest or Veranda, Chuck Ross is the man you should thank for the look and feel of your dreams of more stately mansions. I visited the dazzling Charles L. Ross Gallery in Fort Lauderdale’s Stonewall Library to interview the rather private man who created, endowed and now directs it, but Chuck Ross had his own vision of our time together. He sat me down for a master class in the conception and design of a life in commercial art. Take notes, all you young and aspiring graphic artists and designers.

Chuck Ross did not know what he wanted to be while growing up in Michigan. Looking through the catalogue of the University of Michigan, he circled psychiatry and art. He chose art because it did not require the expense of medical school. “After graduation, I went into advertising even though I hated it because I didn’t want to be poor. I grew up poor.”

Doing his research, making a selection and solving a problem became a successfully repeated pattern for Chuck Ross throughout his life.

 

His first job was at an art studio in Michigan. Ad agencies would bring their concepts to the studio where the artists translated them into pictures. One client, Dow Pharmaceuticals, needed a campaign for a medication to treat violent schizophrenics. Chuck was one of the artists chosen to prepare an ad using an animal in the workout of the concept. “I was given fish as my animal. I drew a fish with fangs and paisley instead of scales. They gave the drawings to psychiatrists for review before final selection. We were sitting in the back of the room when the Dow people asked them ‘Could you tell us about the artist who drew this fish?’ One said ‘This person is non- violent but a latent homosexual.’ I shouted ‘There ain’t nothing latent about me!’”

Chuck went to San Francisco for a va- cation. He returned home to find that his agency had folded. “I had loved San Fran-cisco so I decided to use all my savings to move there. $1000! I thought that would be enough. This was in 1971. I could not get a job there. Everyone said go to LA. I didn’t like LA. But I went.”

For several months, Chuck remained out of work in Los Angeles. “After hating cars, and coming from a car culture in Michigan, I finally got a job as an assistant art director at Motor Trend magazine. Ironic but I loved it! I worked there for several years. I heard Architectural Digest was looking for an art director and I did a mock-up of what I thought their magazine should look like. The publisher didn’t hire me, but he liked my stuff, so he told the new art di- rector to hire me which he did. That was his mistake. I had seen All About Eve...

“Paige Rense who is still the editor-in-chief became my advocate. Eventually I was design- ing the whole issue for her but I wanted the title that I had been denied. She agreed, and my boss got set aside and I became art director. My first issue was March 1979.”

Chuck wanted his magazine to stand out from the competition that routinely featured panoramic views of lavishly furnished rooms. “I thought God, they must use very tall photographers. When I proposed a single close-up shot of just a vase or art object, Paige hesitated but I got my way and that was the start of a new look that all the other magazines have copied. I was at AD for ten years. Eight fun ones and two horrible ones.”

The horrible ones were the result of Paige Rense’s being told that “Chuck runs the magazine.” His professional marriage with a strong- willed woman became a protracted divorce in which he walked away with a large settlement but no job. Another strong-willed woman, Lisa Newsom, convinced him to move to Atlanta to help her launch Veranda, eventually eclipsing Architectural Digest. Chuck asked for and received a percentage of ownership, and became the highest paid art director/editor in the country. When the Hearst Corporation purchased Veranda, Chuck cashed out and settled in Fort Lauderdale.

“I had been retired for five years. It was fun for a while. The thing I missed most was designing. I went to a site called ‘Volunteer Broward’. I narrowed it down to two things: helping the Stonewall Library or ushering at the Center For Performing Arts. The ushering schedule was too demanding.”

Chuck says he learned how to handle strong-willed women at an early age. His grandmother was a powerful matriarch. “I think that’s why I get along so well with Jack”, he said referring to his good friend Jack Rutland who is Stonewall’s executive director. “Jack wanted a museum and I wanted to create one.”

This thought reminded Chuck of his theory that each of us eventually fulfills his favorite fairy tale. “My favorite was Little Black Sambo which is no longer popular because of its racial depictions but it’s really about a boy who talks a tiger out of eating him. He solves the problem that is threaten- ing him. That’s me.”

Today, Chuck Ross is busy solving problems of his own creation that include finding a publisher for the two books he has written. The fact that he has not had a boy- friend since 1981 is not a problem for him. “I’ve had three lovers. The most I could deal with today would be a pilot because he’d be away so often.”

I hope Sleeping Beauty will be the fairy tale ending for Charles L. Ross.

For information about the current exhibit at Chuck’s gallery: http://www.stonewall-library. org/pdf/2010_05.pdf


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