Mark Ronson was renovating his West Village townhouse last summer when an urgent question arose: what kind of audio speakers should he – an award-winning songwriter and record producer a Grammy and an Oscar – get it for her living room?
His interior designer, Michael Bargo, offered him a range of bespoke modular sound systems he had never heard of: Ojas. Mr. Bargo first spotted a pair of Ojas speakers a year earlier, at photographer Tyler Mitchell’s studio, and thought its brutalist aesthetic and vintage hi-fi components suited Mr. Ronson’s postmodern retro style. .
Yet his client was skeptical. “I’m not a particularly sarcastic person or anything, but I remember thinking, ‘What does this guy know about sound? “said Mr. Ronson.
To find out, Ronson paid a visit to the Brooklyn home of Devon Turnbull, 42, who launched Ojas three years ago as a niche audiophile brand that caters to designers and artists. Streetwear aficionados may remember him as the founder of the highly influential Nom de Guerre brand from the early 2000s.
Sitting on a vintage camel-colored recliner refurbished by artist Tom Sachs (another Ojas client), Mr. Ronson inspected the top floor of Mr. Trumbull’s remodeled brownstone in Brooklyn’s Clinton Hill neighborhood , cluttered with Technic turntable motors, triode amplifiers and shelves full of Japanese stereo magazines.
Soon the spunky guitar sounds of Kenny Burrell’s 1963 jazz track “Mule” began emanating from a four-foot-tall subwoofer enclosed in a gray plywood box and a matching pair of speakers. midrange the size of a credenza surmounted by a set of horn tweeters. The guitar strings were rendered with such clarity and dimension that they hit Mr. Ronson like a sensory epiphany – the eardrum’s equivalent of splashing your face in icy water.
“I was completely blown away,” Mr. Ronson said. “I really had a spiritual experience listening to music that day.”
On the spot, he instructs Mr. Turnbull to manufacture a pair of speakers, as well as an amplifier, a turntable and a preamp. “My fool’s errand right now is trying to make my house setup sound exactly like it sounds in Devon’s bedroom, which is like trying to recreate the best toys from the workshop of the Santa,” Mr Ronson said.
It’s audible conversions like these that have made Mr. Turnbull something of a shaman for discerning speakers. His clients have included designer Virgil Abloh (an Ojas installation is included in the posthumous retrospective of Mr. Abloh’s creative life at the Brooklyn Museum); Don Was, president of Blue Note Records; rapper Tyler, the creator; and Ben Gorham, the founder of Byredo (who collaborated with Mr. Turnbull on a speaker-inspired fragrance diffuser).
“When you first hear such natural, detailed sound, you start tripping for a second,” Mr. Turnbull said on a recent Thursday afternoon, from his kitchen overlooking his minimalist Japanese garden. He was dressed in an oversized white t-shirt from Supreme, which suited him perfectly, as Ojas speakers hang from the ceilings of all 14 Supreme stores around the world.
“Supreme and I share an aesthetic of utility-grade materials used in a very thoughtful way,” he said.
Ojas speakers can also be heard at Public Records, an audiophile bar near the Gowanus Canal in Brooklyn; Lisson Gallery in Chelsea, where a holistic ‘listening room’ designed by Mr Turnbull is open to the public until August 5; and, in the fall, the USM Modular Furniture showroom in Manhattan.
High fidelity has a price. Ojas gear is made to order, starting at $2,000 for a DIY speaker kit up to $46,000 or more for special orders, including an 11-foot-tall speaker that has was installed in Prada’s flagship store in Manhattan for a party in May, before shipping. in a nightclub in Mexico.
Each speaker takes Mr. Turnbull at least four months to manufacture in a Brooklyn Navy Yard warehouse. A 30-inch woofer could take years to track down to an audio dealer in Tokyo. Vintage Altec Lansing parts are from a former Oklahoma City manufacturer.
As a limited-edition sneaker drop, Ojas is only sold at a handful of online stores, including Ssense and Canary – Yellow; most clients do their business by DMing Mr. Turnbull on Instagram.
In conversation, Mr. Turnbull often describes sound in metaphysical terms, but this is no gimmick. When he was 11, his family moved from Long Island to a Transcendental Meditation Center in Fairfield, Iowa.
At 19, he moved to Seattle, where he started DJing under the alias “Ojas” (a Sanskrit term roughly translating to “vitality of life”), and enrolled in an audio engineering program. at the Art Institute of Seattle. Through a mutual friend, he met Alex Calderwood, one of the founders of the Ace Hotel chain, who years later would become the first person to order a sound system from him.
He moved to Brooklyn in 1999 and enrolled in The New School, where he began experimenting with fashion and made felt appliqué-embroidered t-shirts that were sold at Alife, an underground streetwear boutique. of the Lower East Side.
In 2003, Mr. Trumbull co-founded Nom de Guerre, a menswear line with a word-of-mouth boutique in NoHo that, along with Supreme, helped set the stage for the streetwear boom that now pervades fashion.
When Nom de Guerre folded in 2010 (“Menswear back then just wasn’t making money,” he said), Mr. Turnbull fell into creative funk. “I lost interest in streetwear,” he said. “I just wore Ralph Lauren undershirts and Levi 501s every day for 10 years.”
Unbeknownst to him at the time, the brand’s militant skate-rat aesthetic left an impression on a new generation of trendsetters, including Mr. Abloh, who cited the brand as an influence on Off-White. Fashion retailer website Grailed called Nom de Guerre “the most influential streetwear brand you may never have heard of”.
After Mr. Abloh tagged Mr. Turnbull on Instagram, the duo became friends and became vocal on topics as varied as graphics for Louis-Vuitton t-shirts and vinyl recommendations.
“Virgil was on top of me when very few people were on top of me,” he said.
Last November, Mr. Abloh and Mr. Turnbull collaborated on a speaker system just before Mr. Abloh died. Mr Turnbull said he still “choked” from time to time thinking about his friend and all the audio and fashion projects they had talked about.
“Virgil intuitively understood the communicative power of music,” he said. “Listening to records together was a sacred act.