Assemble’s Granby Workshop

A community-led enterprise that hopes to reinvigorate the Liverpool neighborhood

Last year’s winner of the Turner Prize (the prestigious UK art award that’s previously been given to artists including Gillian Wearing, Anish Kapoor and Wolfgang Tillmans) was a bit of a head-turner. The 2015 award went to Assemble, an architectural collective from London whose winning piece, Granby Workshop, was then launched thanks to the Turner Prize. The 15-strong collective collaborated with locals in Liverpool’s Granby Four Streets, a derelict area that nonetheless has a strong community spirit with residents working together to improve their neighborhood. Here, the DIY spirit is alive and well, and that helped Assemble launch the Granby Workshop together with the residents, manufacturing unique products from materials in the area, including terra cotta pieces and demolition and construction waste.

Assemble recently unveiled the first Granby Workshop collection at UK trade show Top Drawer. The products are all, naturally, made in Granby and the profits from their sales go to a youth program in the area, which helps young people get started in creative and practical projects. Among the products for sale are a beautiful mantelpiece and a playful terra cotta lampshade, as well as delicate ceramic handles that have been hand-smoked in the workshop. Selling the pieces to the public means that Assemble is effectively giving anybody a chance to own a Turner Prize-winning artwork. Cool Hunting spoke with Lewis Jones of Assemble about the collective’s work in Liverpool and the resulting collection.

Could you tell us a bit about the design process for the Granby Workshop?

We were really keen to use the Turner Prize price platform to create something new. That was a real incentive to launch Granby Workshop, and involve more people in the creation of these products. With the first range of products, we initially designed quite a few of them for the houses in Granby, so they were things that we had created as prototypes in our studio in London. With the workshop team the project range got expanded. There are other processes, like the block printing, which really happened in collaboration with the workshop team. We were keen to have some soft furnishings, as it’s very much something that’s associated with making a house a home. We were exploring a very simple, intuitive printing process, so block printing seemed great, and we were able to use the offcuts from the wooden products that we were making as the blocks. We also had a few people on the workshop team who already had experience in textile and printing.

How ongoing is the project—will it be a permanent fixture of the social enterprise or simply a way to generate income early on, while the area is being regenerated?

The ambition is for it to be ongoing, because it’s really about having a place and organization that supports the culture of creativity and of making that has been so transformative in Granby. That’s the tool that we use to bring this area out of dereliction, and to get young people in Granby involved with doing creative, practical projects. The products are one side of that: all of the profit is reinvested into the youth program, supporting things on a local scale. It’s been quite amazing that people from all over the world are able to invest in, and support, the things that are happening there. It’s not just a single purchaser or benefactor: it’s hundreds of people placing orders for tiles and lampshades, enabling the work to continue in Granby.

Is Granby Workshop a concept that you think could be rolled out to other neighborhoods across the UK?

Everything that’s happened in Granby is first and foremost down to the tenacity and creativity of the people living there, who brought us in and who have really been driving the project. I also think one of the things that we’ve been able to give this project is a lot of time, and we’ve become really invested in the situation as well. It always takes time to make things work, so it’s not a simple model that can be replicated, but it’s certainly something that hopefully explores and demonstrates different ways of doing things. We should all be interested in who our products are made by, and for. One of the things that brings us together in Assemble is wanting to address that typical disconnection, or distraction, that people feel in relation to change in their neighborhoods, and understanding our environment as changeable and valuable. We hope that it’s also something that can happen elsewhere.

Do you have a favorite piece from the Granby collection?

The project really got its momentum when we were developing the mantelpiece with Will Shannon. We used a range of Granby rock products, such as demolition waste from houses and old bricks, and developing that product gave it all a huge amount of momentum. The tiles are also a lot of fun, and a product for which the design happens as they’re made. It makes the production side of it an explicitly creative and experimental act. They’re a really fun thing to make—every single one of them is different, and that’s really evident.

How has winning the Turner changed things for Assemble?

It’s definitely introduced a much wider audience to our work and that is exciting. We’ve met lots of interesting people and started intriguing conversations as a result, but on a day to day level nothing has changed, there’s just more emails to respond to! We’re really keen to keep going and focus on the work that interests us, and certainly, in Granby, there’s still a huge amount of work to be done. There’s a network of projects that are still ongoing there—the workshop, as well as plans to turn the two houses in the worst condition into a shared winter garden—that will be starting this year.

Granby Workshop products are available online.

Images by Cajsa Carlson