Meet NYC installation artists Aux Armes

“Aux arms et caetera” is a 1979 Gainsbourg album whose title song was considered an insult to the French Republic and reportedly even pissed off Bob Marley. The song also served as inspiration for installation artists Sam Wheeler and Dino Siampos, a creative duo who have taken window displays to new dimensions. They’ve collaborated with an impressive roster of clients, to produce visually arresting displays that perfectly merry their playful taste with the brands luxe message.

Dino and Sam have established a cohesive workflow, their bond (established during their time in their band Soft) has allowed them to venture past installations and collaborate on Lavender Lake, their bar in Brooklyn and on Svpscription, a quarterly curated subscription service delivering hard to find items to discerning customers.

We met Aux Armes in their spacious Brooklyn studio, replete with exposed brick, red furniture and quirky statues. Their space is reflective of their mannerisms, calm and cool without being contrived. We spoke with Sam and Dino about their Barneys beginnings, what it’s like to create for big brands and if they consider themselves artists.

How did Barneys play a role in the inception of Aux Armes?

S: I was 23 when I moved to NYC, April 2001. My first job was selling jeans at Barneys on the 8th floor at the Madison flagship. Working at Barneys was like going to grad school for business. It was a crash course in a very specific language. In terms of how to think about the environment and how to think about making things both functional and artistic, it was when I still thought of it like an artist.

D: I was working for Barneys in Chicago, doing freelance work for them, and around that time they were opening Barneys co-ops around the US and they flew me to New York to open one in Soho. I was here for a week and had a good time and was just super impressed by everyone and obviously the city. The team mentioned that there would be a position open if i wanted it, in New York, so of course I took it and moved. I was 25.

At what point did you decide that you wanted to work together? 

S: I met Dino at a party when he was here opening the 18th street co-op. We were friends, but not super close friends, I had made friends with everyone in the visual department. It was really through the band we were in that we became such close friends.  Going on the road and practicing five nights a week. Going on the road, you really get to know who a person is.

D: We both found ourselves in the same position, both being freelance, even though Sam was still at Barneys, he was kind of trying to get himself out of that. So he’d come and help me out on jobs, on the freelance side of things, and I would do the same with him, and it just got to the point where we were like well, why don’t we just actually just do the job always together, maybe call ourselves something, it was almost that basic. It made sense, and we had fun with the name, and making our own business cards, getting a website going, and it all just kind of started from there.

You started your business during the recession; were you worried about failing? 

S:  It was scary, to leave a full time job and the economy wasn’t okay, and to possibly have no pay, except for a couple of freelance clients. Basically we were doing one store once a month. Also without the support structure of a team, we’re always going to be on our own and on the fly.  There was a certain element of faking it until we made it. Oh yeah, we can do that…how do we do that? We met great people, other fabricators and designers.

D: We luckily didn’t have to do much to try and find work. We worked with a lot of similar creatives, in different fields and we all came up together at the same time.  There’s this kind of unspoken support system, and that kind of really helped us, to grow and acquire work. At the same time, people do like the story that we’re like this duo, semi stylish, there’s a perception there, and we were in a band together, and we’re friends, we’re always seen pretty much together during the day.

Can you take us a little through the creative process of working with a brand? How do you implement the display you’ve envisioned?

S:We try to look at the brand’s inspiration or the designer’s inspiration, or it can come from a specific piece. If someone wants to highlight a specific key look or fabric that is inspiring them, then that’s the best, because they’ll say “Oh this fabric was made in a small village” and then they bring it in. With a brand like Hermes, who is one of our favourite clients, they have a unique brand with so much language already built into it with the equestrian and the care they put into materials. We really draw on that idea to build new ideas, to come up with something playful but elegant.

Whether it’s for multiple stores, fashion shows or a single install, there’s definitely an anxiety there. Sometimes we’re seeing the final product for the first time, and although we’ve seen it along the way, if it’s even a centimeter off, chances are its not going to work. There’s just so many logistical concerns. Conceptually, our anxiety is usually gone by this point and we hope we’ve had enough dialogue and everybody should be on board.

Do you identify more with being an artist or an entrepreneur?

S: I don’t consider what we do art. If you think about Duchamp and the intention of art, what we’re doing is based on the client, so it doesn’t really have any emotional attachment. I still love the creative process. I guess I feel more like an entrepreneur. Eventually I would like to go back to being an artist, but this has that same fun and yeah that’s the idea, because you need that little bit of approval, there is often that little bit of separation. I think it’s a healthy separation.

D: I went to art school and was more of an artist, I’d say. When I met Sam, we were both much more in that mentality; we were playing music together, so everything was all through the same prism essentially. But I think, it’s kind of, it’s the cocktail of New York. You have to survive, you have to make something. It just seemed natural that maybe we could do this together, but still kind of through that artistic lens. And then the entrepreneurial side just kind of comes, it follows that, and now I think it’s kind of 50/50.

You were in Soft together, any chance you’ll reunite and make more music? 

S: It’s been a few years that it’s been in the background but yeah we still talk about it all the time, but it’s always, when we have some free time, to record and stuff but we never have free time. There’s no slow period and anytime there is, it always gets filled up. As we grow, that’s one of our hopes, to be able to tour.