Interview: Assemble on Hospital Rooms

published on 28 July 2016

Alice Edgerley of Turner prize winning design collective Assemble discusses their involvement in improving mental health hospital spaces.

Alice Edgerley of Turner prize winning design collective Assemble discusses their involvement in improving mental health hospital spaces.

Noticeboard by Assemble

Lou Stoppard: Tell me a little bit about how Assemble came to be involved and the original idea for the notice board?

Alice Edgerley, Assemble: We were approached by Niamh White to see if Assemble wanted to one of the groups involved in Hospital Rooms. On a site visit we met Anna, the occupational therapist at The Phoenix Unit and she showed us around the ward with its current set up. There's an activity board which is almost a timetable of all the activities happening in the ward throughout the week. This is great because it gives the residents a chance to work together and arrange activities around their different interests, however, the board she was using wasn’t really up to scratch - it was basically just a whiteboard. Anna was saying that she would really like something robust and engaging, a beautiful signpost or a notice board that would draw the attention of the patients and be really clear. So we started looking into it, working with one of the carpenters based in Sugarhouse, where we work. We made this beautiful hand-crafted wooden frame which doesn't use any screws or nails. It's all made with traditional cabinet joinery so it means it's a lot safer for the residents. It is an oak timber frame with a felt pin board inside. The blank timetable is screen-printed onto the felt and then we're making placards that can be moved around on the timetable.

LS: The idea of artworks that also have a real function underpins a lot of your wider work; there's a sense of usage in everything that you make. Would you say that’s the case?

AE: Yes, I'd say that. A lot of the people at Assemble have a background in architecture, so there are a lot of projects that have certain briefs to fulfil and to do that we work with a whole range of people along the way. It makes it interesting; it's a challenge, but it brings out a lot of different outcomes.

LS: It's quite an interesting idea though; something that can be defined as an artwork but is also a useful object. That’s quite a rare idea.

AE: Yes, that's true. It's stepping more into the craft side of things as opposed to what's traditionally thought of as art.

LS: The work that you do is often about involving the public, it's a dialogue that people can actively be allowed to participate in. I think this is one of the things that is important to this project as a whole - allowing the patients to interact with one another and engage with the works. Is that something that intrigued you about the project?

AE: It's great to involve people in the development of what you're working on. We also took our lead from Anna, the occupational therapist. Her job provides something useful for the people living in the Phoenix Unit, as well as making life a little easier for the staff there. In a way, it was as much about answering her requests as it was about improving the environment for people living at the Phoenix Unit.

LS: Have you done any work before that involves working with people with mental health issues?

AE: No. It's definitely a first.

LS: What were the challenges and thought processes that were involved with working in that kind of arena? Obviously you've done a lot of things that relate to playgrounds or public spaces involving aspects of the community, but this is a very specific kind of community with a very specific need and that must have changed the process.

A: There's definitely certain limitations. In a way that made it a very interesting project for us because you've got these restraints that allow you to go off in a direction that you probably wouldn't have otherwise. It happens with a lot of our projects but I think the main difference here is the caution you have to take about the types of material. Things have to be very safe; no exposed screws, nails or hinges and we couldn't use glass, it has to be a particular type of Perspex. The fabric and pins also have to be hidden away because you don't want people to hurt themselves. In a way, we think about that with playgrounds, but here it's a very different context. That was an interesting way to work, because quite a lot of the time with those restrictions people make things that are pretty character-less, so the challenge was to create something that still felt quite domestic and engaging.

The environment that you live is as important as the types of food that you eat. People always feel better in a nicer place, there's something very therapeutic about it.

LS: It's interesting that you use the word domestic - did you also think of the therapeutic side of the piece in terms of it being something that people could look at and feel a sense of happiness or worth or value?

A: I think that's what is really great about this project and what Niamh and Tim have done is really great - to take a place where people live for a number of years and turn it into a place that might feel like a home rather than a hospital. I think that's really important in people's recovery and general well-being. Those environments are often overlooked. I think if you have some things that look like they are of worth, as you would in a home, things of beauty, then it might start to add to that feeling of home.

LS: In a way this project is an extension of a practice that you currently have where you make beautiful things that are involved in the community. They don’t just exist in the context of the gallery, purely to appeal to art people. Do you think that bringing art into communal space should just be common sense?

A: I certainly think it should be done more often. I think it would be great if hospitals, places of long-term chronic illnesses or centres where people spend a long time in recovery could feel a lot more friendly because often they don't. The environment that you live is as important as the types of food that you eat. People always feel better in a nicer place, there's something very therapeutic about it.

LS: Was there an interest in creating something that reflects the experience of people within the facility? Art has the potential to serve as a way of documenting or encapsulating difficulties or trauma or upset. Did you think about that notion at all when producing the piece or was it much more focused on serving a purpose to the residents within the space?

A: I think we were wary of the former because we don't feel at all well versed in that area. With this project we took a fairly practical response, one of creating a beautiful thing that can be a source of comfort or a reassuring feeling. We didn't look at trying to encapsulate the experience of the patients as that's something that we're not trained in at all. I think from talking to Anna and the staff there we were able to gage the type of environment, we were following their lead on that. They know much better than we do.

LS: One thing that I wanted to ask quite specifically about was the 'Our Meaningful Day'. Can you just tell me a bit more about that part of the board?

A: We had initially suggested a different title; 'This week in The Phoenix'. But it's been a method that the staff had been following as a way to encourage the residents to take part in activities in a meaningful way. 

LS: What are your hopes for the work? What would you like to see it do?

A: A great thing would be for it to last a long time and for it to become a useful tool for the staff of the Phoenix Unit. If the patients can get engaged with it and if it results in them starting to get involved and taking enjoyment from all these different activities that are happening at the Phoenix Unit then that would be a great outcome. It's basically a tool that helps support all of this great stuff that the staff are already doing and to make that a bit more obvious to the patients, to make that a bit easier for them to see what’s going on.

Interview by:



Interview: Aimee Mullins on Hospital Rooms

25 April 2018
Artist Aimee Mullins discusses using her personal experience in hospitals to transform the Eileen Skellern 1 mental health ward.

Interview: Harold Offeh on Hospital Rooms

25 April 2018
Harold Offeh talks to Georgina Evans about creating his space at the Maudsley Hospital, which he made in collaboration with the service users.

Interview: Tim A Shaw on Hospital Rooms

25 April 2018
Artist and co-founder of Hospital Rooms Tim A Shaw talks about the influence of the project on his work and collaborative practice.
Back to top