The art world was astounded when Assemble’s imaginative community-based project for revitalising four derelict streets in Liverpool won the Turner Prize last month and went on show in Glasgow.
Their range will launch at the big twice-yearly Top Drawer trade show, opening at Olympia in W14 on Sunday.
If this is indeed “art”— and even its makers are not convinced — you can buy into it for as little as £8 for a tile, and Assemble will also sell their homewares via a dedicated website, at granbyworkshop.co.uk.
Collaboration with the people locally who will use their homes — sharing ideas, strategies, labour, materials and results — is at the heart of everything Assemble does.
The collective is currently 16 strong, split equally between the sexes and aged between 26 and 29. Based at their Sugarhouse studio in Stratford, the group met each other while studying architecture at Cambridge, and came together in 2010 when, aided by more than 100 volunteers, they created a cinema in a disused petrol station in Clerkenwell Road.
“We made everything, working things out as we went along — including tip-up seats from scaffolding board and curtains from roofing membrane,” says 28-year-old Lewis Jones, who has been in the group since the beginning.
Assemble has now completed 17 projects, including an art/meeting place under a motorway in Hackney, the Yardhouse gallery in Stratford — faced with colourful concrete tiles cast on site — and furniture for a Harrow park made from its own felled trees.
Among 11 projects currently under way is a new gallery for Goldsmiths university in New Cross, south-east London, set within a Victorian bathhouse.
Meanwhile, Assemble’s Turner Prize-winning venture in Liverpool — called Granby Four Streets — is continuing. At its heart is the Granby Workshop, housed in a three-storey former shop. There, harnessing the skills and expertise of local designers and makers, Jones and his colleague Fran Edgerley created beautiful handmade artefacts for the renovation of local houses.
The pieces included fabrics, lamps, tiles, woodwork and even a fireplace. These items went on display for the group’s Turner Prize installation at the Tramway Glasgow arts venue.
The wider ambition underpinning the project and its “art” was to create a productive “social enterprise” to bring local employment, training and revenue to the community making the goods. The items were put up for sale at the gallery and orders were gratifyingly high. The products will now reach a wider audience at Top Drawer, where they will be seen by buyers for shops and galleries worldwide.
Everything is handmade to order using newly discovered processes. Printed cotton fabrics, for example, in lovely greys and blues, have geometric patterns, but are hand-blocked. This is printing at its most basic, using strips of wood off-cuts inked with a roller, and repeated over and over, to make a choice of designs. You can buy the results at £30 to £60 a metre. A chair with a metal frame and hand-blocked fabric sling is £350.
“Yes, you can see the hand of the maker in all our products,” says Jones. “Indeed, our ways of making actively embrace chance and improvisation.”
Even new materials have been invented. “Granby Rock” is hard and strong, with coloured streaks, speckles and flakes that betray its origins — construction waste from the houses being refurbished in Granby. Discarded red and yellow brick, slate and stone are cast with sand and pigmented cement, then ground and polished.
The result, though nothing more than rubble, really, is surprisingly beguiling and on-trend. Granby Rock products include fireplaces for about £1,500, bookends for £40, a planter at £175, plus desk lamps, £100, trivets, £20, and a table for £450.
Furniture has been made from turned and burned timber, using a blowtorch and shaping legs on a lathe. They are fixed to thick slabs of pale poplar with a through-tenon joint. The top comes either charred, with pale sanded timber joints or pale, with charred black joints — stool from £185; bench £325. Made with traditional paper-marbling techniques are lamp shades and tables in different colours — a table with a metal frame is about £250.
An unusual lamp shade, priced £150, features small, torn shapes of stained terracotta clay, pressed into a large plaster mould, and then fired. The result is a smooth surface on the outside and an undulating interior, with a warm pattern that resembles camouflage. Ceramic tiles with colourful cut and torn shapes are made from collaged ceramic decals. Every tile is different, and they cost £8 each.
Improvisation and experimentation has produced idiosyncratic clay cabinet handles and light pulls which are “smoke-fired”. They have been wrapped in foil, buried in a barbecue filled with burning sawdust and left for about 12 hours. Varying exposure to smoke with packaging and masking gives different colours and textures, as does “seasoning” with banana skins and pine needles.