Make, Do And Mend: The Assemble Group Are Designing A Better World

In a world where open-ended, collaborative and cross-disciplinary creative practise is throwing up all kinds of new possibilities, the work of the Assemble group seems completely in tune with the moment.

This eighteen-strong London-based collective started almost accidentally, when a group of under-employed architects and designers decided to put their skills to use in an eye-catching series of urban interventions, such as placing a makeshift cinema on the forecourt of a disused petrol station, or building a temporary house under a motorway flyover. Such works highlight the potential of derelict urban spaces, reviving unlikely locations as memorable, thriving social spaces.

Despite the grand results, Assemble memeber Maria Lisogorskaya remains humble. “It all started very organically,” she recalls. “We didn’t start out to set up a collective — we just did a few projects together. It was started as an amateur thing. We took holidays or did it in our free time. We had other jobs.”

Working with people

In the five years since then, Assemble has become an in-demand studio that carries out all sorts of projects, such as helping to regenerate a struggling Liverpool community through creative endeavour. This involved giving the neighbourhood a physical facelift, whilst passing on valuable skills to locals.

“We’re interested in the social, and the public. We like working with people, and learning from them.

“We’re interested in the social, and the public,” explains Maria. “We like working with people, and learning from them. In our Liverpool project, we worked with a community that’s been active in the area for 20 years. We were trying to use the skills we’ve learned as designers to collaborate with them.”

This interest in hands-on collaboration and “making themselves useful” has led Assemble to take design out of the studio not in the form of a pristine object, but as a living process. There’s something refreshingly unpretentious about how they do it.

“Design includes a lot of planning, and thinking things through,” says Maria. “It’s a word that’s used a lot, but the process itself been around for centuries. It’s a way to make things more efficient and desirable, and to try and improve things.”

Use what you have

Much to their own surprise, Assemble were nominated for, and ultimately won, the 2015 Turner Prize — a prestigious televised art award in the UK. But while much live art is about performance — or, often, a performative inclusion of the audience — Assemble don’t perform at all. The group engages in a genuine collaboration with active participants, engaging people in something fun, functional, and with a tangible outcome.

“Problem solving is something we’re interested in, and each project certainly has its own problems.”

“Problem solving is something we’re interested in,” says Maria, “and each project certainly has its own problems. It’s not always just about making a spectacular experience for people to enjoy — sometimes it’s also about giving certain people a voice who don’t have one, or helping on something very specific. Something we’re interested in how you can use what’s already there as a resource. What we do is very different from project to project.”

I wonder if “making things better” is a kind of informal guiding principle for the group’s activities. “As designers you’re taught to fix things, to improve things, and to make new things,” says Maria, “and the scale at which this can be done can really vary.”

Just do something

Going into a situation in which the outcome is not yet determined shows a willingness to view design as a living, participatory, free-flowing process, and has led to some unexpected results — not least, the transformation of Assemble from an ambitious hobby into a full-time job.

“It was something fun. We did it to make ourselves just do something, and to enjoy doing it. The fact that we’re now a company is a massive surprise.”

“The fact that we’re here as a company is an unexpected result of our first project,” smiles Maria. “It was something fun. We did it to make ourselves just do something, and to enjoy doing it. The fact that we’re now a company is a massive surprise.”

The group gravitates towards socially minded projects, but Maria is tentative when asked about whether Assemble’s social practise reads as a form of creative activism. “Activism is quite a loaded word,” she says. “We don’t have a shared political view. But there is an element of self-initiation, and of challenging briefs. And we definitely try to make things better.”

This article originally appeared in The Reykjavík Grapevine in March 2016.

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