The Wick - Maria by Lolo Lewis Edwards The Wick - Maria by Lolo Lewis Edwards
Monday Muse

Interview Assemble’s Maria Lisogorskaya

Maria Lisogorskaya
Lolo Lewis Edwards
18 September 2023
Maria Lisogorskaya
Lolo Lewis Edwards
18 September 2023
London Design Festival is back this week, to celebrate and promote the city as the design capital of the world. We caught up with Maria Lisogorskaya, co-founding director of Assemble, the London-based Turner Prize-winning architecture and art studio, to find out what she’s most looking forward to.

Lisogorskaya, who has also been a lecturer at universities and art schools across the world, engages with people, places and materials at different scales: object making, spatial design and organisational development.

Her internationally acclaimed projects include Blackhorse Workshop in London, a publicly accessible space she helped to establish, design and contributed to at board level; product development for Granby Workshop in Liverpool; concept and design for exhibitions such as the Material Institute in New Orleans where she led the pilot for a new experimental fashion and textiles department, co-founded with MONA; and, most recently, the Assemble collaboration with Atelier Luma in Arles, using bioregional materials to deliver an environmentally ambitious building for its research and development labs.

THE WICK:   What are you most excited about seeing at the London Design Festival?

Maria Lisogorskaya:   On Tuesday 19 September Central Saint Martins Cities will launch the ‘Beneath The Veil’ exhibition, exploring the regenerative practices of indigo growing in the northern Nigerian city of Kano.

I’m also excited for this year’s winners of the London Design Medal, which will be awarded to structural engineer Hanif Kara, architect Pooja Agrawal, ceramicist Magdalene Odundo and designers POor Collective. The Global Design Forum at the V&A looks good with speakers like Priya Khanchandani and Yinka Ilori. Beautiful tapestry and the film Unstruck Melody at the V&A, which explores spirituality and self-discovery through Sikh teachings. The Dreamachine exhibition showing drawings by visitors to Dreamachine, a travelling installation we designed. And finally, our collaborator Madelon Vriesendorp’s eclectic and humorous takeover of The Cosmic House.

TW:   Architecture is increasingly merging with the visual arts. Which museum or gallery do you feel holds this conversation well?

ML:   I enjoy the co-existence of the smaller, weirder museums, which tell very niche stories using architecture and artefacts to build context. For example, the Museum of Jurassic Technology in Los Angeles, House of Dance and Feathers in New Orleans or Art Omi in New York, as well as the larger museums that can show broad, permanent and rotating collections like the HKW in Berlin.

I also love the Fogo Island Arts residency spaces, which bring together architecture, landscape, visual and written arts in beautiful remote nature.

During our recent collaboration with the Nubuke foundation, I enjoyed learning about the relationship between the Accra-based museums and traditional gallery spaces and the rural studios focusing on ceramics and weaving production in Wa.

Assemble was recently elected as a Royal Academician, allowing us to meet painters, sculptors and architects, and exhibit this interdisciplinary work side by side together. The Assemble-designed Goldsmiths Centre for Contemporary Art also turned five this year. Hopefully, its programme will continue to flourish.

TW:   Assemble focuses on the collective mindset of a multi-disciplinary group. How do you foster this sense of togetherness in your practice?

ML:   It’s an ongoing project. Due to the nature of our practice structure and experience, we’ve been lucky to be approached by a range of organisations who are carving out new domains. For example, we could learn a lot from working with Granby Community Land Trust and its activism and investment in its neighbourhood; or with the growing community of Material Institute staff and students who are brought together through its educational space; or the incredible collective knowledge of Atelier Luma’s interdisciplinary designers. Often we relate deeply to people who are brought together by a public agenda, building or cooking processes, or who are learning together.

TW:   What is the technology you will be looking to integrate into building, design and art within your future work?

ML:   Sometimes a forgotten or overlooked old is the new you need! Or as the Xinjiang saying goes (I read on Lao Dao restaurant’s Instagram page), ‘preserve the old, but know the new’.

For example: the ‘Primitive Technology’ YouTube channel or Atelier Luma bioregional material research. Lewis Jones, one of the Assemble and Granby Workshop co-founders, also just developed a new waste ceramic material through his PhD, which can be fired at a significantly lower temperature, saving a lot of energy!

“There are so many untapped opportunities for our cities to deliver more extraordinary places for people.”

TW:   How does how we build dictate city culture and what one change would you like cities to make?

ML:   How we build is so much about relationships, communication, understanding, education and skills. How we relate to each other as commissioners or builders or inhabitants, or all those at once. One thing I’d like to change is for cities/us to have more curiosity about where we place our values. There are so many untapped opportunities for our cities to deliver more extraordinary places for people; affordable work and housing, playgrounds for children. In Dalmarnock for example, Baltic Street Adventure Playground was a way for us to rethink children’s needs, talents and the importance of play in our lives.

TW:   What is the project you are most proud of?

ML:   The project of Assemble itself; us keeping it going for the past 13 years! I’m also proud of places we’ve contributed to building, whose people I’ve developed relationships with over time, such as Blackhorse Workshop, Granby Workshop, Sugarhouse Studios, Material Institute, Atelier Luma/Le Magasin Électrique.

TW:   How did your upbringing inform your work?

ML:   I grew up in a home full of humour, with a creative approach to making do when something isn’t available – where ‘reuse’ and adaptation are standard. As an immigrant, I perhaps take for granted my cultural dualities, sometimes seeing problems from different mindsets and perspectives, and being open to uncertainty. I enjoy building places by learning about what already exists there first.

TW:   What tips would you give to women wanting to break through in a male-dominated environment?

ML:   Have curiosity, confidence, fun and work. Don’t give up and allow yourself to get deep into things that resonate with you.

TW:   Which is your favourite building and museum to spend time in?

ML:   I’ve been lucky to spend time in Parc des Ateliers/Luma Arles. Not only because it’s a gorgeous part of the South of France, but it’s also a museum which is both a lush park, series of event spaces and a platform for international contemporary artists and designers.

I also enjoy passing by this shopfront near where I live in London, which looks like it’s someone’s house disguised as a gallery. The opening hours are always set as ‘closed’ and they change the display every month or so with some surreal sets of objects and narratives. This public street entertainment sort of justifies whatever trickery might be going on!

TW:   What is your favourite cultural spot?

ML:   I live in London, with so many cultural spots. Some are gone, and new ones are built.

Places run by the lifeforce of individuals going above and beyond, like House of Annetta, Blackhorse Workshop, Latin Village, Ormside Projects, Jumbi, James Massiah’s poetry nights, Bromley by Bow Centre, New Beacon Books and Finnish sauna in Rotherhithe. Places with unexpected energies like the Wickes builders car park, late-night pool halls or chess at 180 Reference Point.

As a teenager, I sometimes went to the Southbank Centre, watched films at NFT and then hung around the undercroft to check out the hot skaters. Walked or partied along the Thames shore at low tide. Did my homework on loose, free-to-use tables at the Royal Festival Hall. It is amazing that we have London’s local libraries, or the British Library – places you can just be in all day without buying a thing. Or Notting Hill Carnival, with other bodies transported by the legendary Aba Shanti-I sound system.

Not forgetting spots which are no longer, like Plastic People, Four Aces Club, the India club, and many more. Remembering the power of a small independent room to influence a whole cultural era; letting people do their thing.

TW:   Who is your favourite designer or brand to wear to art world openings?

ML:   Duval Timothy’s (aka Carrying Colour) ‘Country Cloth’ kimono, pieces by Material Institute’s fashion graduates and designers Feben, Labrum, Faustine Steinmetz, Kenneth Ize, Leuder, Margiela and Issey Miyake, charity shop finds, unbranded or mended items, and my grandparents’ shirts.

TW:   Who is your ultimate Monday Muse?

ML:   My grandma Esfir. Her deep laughter travelled through concrete walls. Funny, smart, sexy, generous, an engineer, a forest hiker, with strong style (despite very limited clothes options), a woman of her word. She could swear occasionally, but made it fab. She took me to museums as a kid, where I would slide on large smooth floors.

This year’s London Design Festival runs from 16 to 24 September

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