On the surface, Ross Symons is a fairly typical 30-something Capetonian. It’s not hard to imagine him sitting in traffic on the way to the office, or tapping the day away at his laptop beneath the fluorescent glow of the office lights.
‘I remember working late when I was doing a nine-to-five job,’ he says from his fifth-floor studio on Bree Street. ‘I’d get home at two or three in the morning because we had to get a website live, and I hated that. Now, if I have to fold something that has to go out the next day, I’m not sitting there hating my life – I’m loving it!’
Just five years earlier, Ross was fully immersed in the corporate life, as an in-house web developer at a top South African advertising agency. Though he didn’t have anything against the advertising industry, or the people he was working with, he struggled with office life.
‘It was a rad place to work,’ he says. ‘The people were cool, too. But in spite of this, there was always this undercurrent of me having to go to a place to do work. The work was OK, but I was getting told what to do – and that’s always frustrated me.’
This was a feeling that followed him through his working life, and so in the back of his mind he always had dreams of starting something new on his own terms. ‘In 2013 I opened an Instagram account [called White on Rice], and moved to a new company,’ he says. ‘I thought I’d just use the account for what I was into at the time, but I really enjoyed origami. If I folded something cool, I’d just post it every now and again.’
Towards the end of 2013, Ross started folding a lot of new designs simply for his own enjoyment. He was also following a lot of origami artists online. ‘I started seeing that they were making more than just the simple duck and rabbit thing – there was wet folding, people were folding life-size creations. I was obsessed with how these guys were doing this.’
Origami began to occupy his mind full time, and it was starting to bleed over into his day job. ‘I was once sitting at my computer doing a folding tutorial of some kind,’ Ross chuckles, ‘and I had no idea my project manager was standing behind me watching me fold. He was like “Dude, what are you doing?” I turned around and said, “A tutorial, Wes.” He didn’t know what to say, and just walked away, muttering, “OK, well, we have websites to put live, dude.”’
At that stage, Ross had checked out from the corporate world. ‘I realised maybe I’m not as into this job thing as much as I should be,’ he says. ‘So in 2014 I was folding other people’s designs every day anyway, and I saw Cape Town miniaturist artist Lorraine Loots doing her 365 Paintings for Ants projects as well. For as long as I can remember, I always wanted to do one thing every day for a year.’
And so, on January 1, 2014, while still working at a major advertising agency, Ross started folding one animal every day for a full year, and posted the creations to Instagram. At this stage, it was nothing more than a personal project – a way to prove to himself that he could consistently create something interesting, and at the end of it, have a digital record of everything he’d folded.
With sufficient freelance work coming to keep him going, Ross quit his job with the intention of starting a business that would service the advertising industry. With the safety net of freelance work, and good connections in the industry, he says it wasn’t a stressful process to go out on his own.
‘My fallback was always going to be never to burn bridges in the advertising world, or any job that I had, because I never knew if this was going to work,’ he says. ‘It wasn’t a stressful thing for me – I always knew I could go back and get a job again. I told myself, “You’ve done this before, you know what it feels like, you know how to get a job again if necessary.”’
After he quit his job, Ross’s origami creations started to gain traction. ‘People started following what I was doing on Instagram, and I was just so grateful that people were enjoying it.’ His following was still small at this stage, but he celebrated every new follower – so much so that he folded a special piece for his 500th follower. He asked for her address, and mailed it to her. ‘I did the same thing with my 1000th follower,’ he says. ‘I was in awe of the response, regardless of how small it was at the time.’
Little did Ross know that just a few months later he’d be sitting in front of the app in total disbelief at what was unfolding. ‘I got featured by Instagram, and they wrote an article about me for their blog in October of that year,’ he says. He knew when the Instagram post was going to go live, and recorded the notifications coming through on his laptop. ‘It was a blur – you couldn’t see what was going on, there were so many new followers and likes coming through. It was pretty bizarre; it was like I won the follower lottery.’
Ross didn’t let the almost overnight Instagram fame go to his head. Instead, he doubled down on the hard work and stayed focussed on what he was going to fold next and continued to gain traction on the platform, as big brands started contacting him for offline collaborations.
Towards the end of his first 365 project, he received an email from fashion house Christian Dior.
‘I was like – what the hell is going on?’ he says. ‘They wanted two little content pieces for Twitter or Instagram, or something, asked me to quote them for it in euros, and they paid me what I would have made in two months as a developer.’
Ross has since gone on to fold original pieces for other big brands, including Red Bull, Adidas, Converse and Playstation. His Instagram following has grown to 115,000, and origami is now his full-time job.
He doesn’t seem to think his approach is particularly unique or special, but rather that success such as that he’s experienced is within reach of anyone willing to put themselves out there. ‘Anyone who hears the quiet whisper of “Just give it a go” should do it, until it turns into something,’ he says. ‘Trust me. When you do that, crazy stuff starts happening.’
In spite of his evident success since quitting his job and doing origami full time, he still clearly loves the art form. ‘I love the simplicity of origami,’ he says. ‘Starting with a sheet of paper and creating something that can be used or recognised as art is just awesome. People experience an element of magic when they see what can be achieved with paper folding.’
Origami is the ancient Japanese art form of folding paper. ‘You start with a sheet and without cutting or using glue you fold the paper into a shape or figure,’ says Ross. ‘This is done using folding techniques developed over the years.’ According to Ross, the possibilities are endless. ‘With a good understanding of origami, you can fold anything from a car to a lion to a building, or anything you can imagine.’