MONA and Assemble Create a Fashion School in New Orleans

Called Material Institute, the center offers production space, mentorships, training, and educational programming.

Material Institute, a new space for the design and production of textiles and garments, has found fertile ground in New Orleans.  Courtesy Esther Choi

In a former car repair shop in the Ninth Ward of New Orleans, the Tasmania-based Museum of Old and New Art (MONA) and London’s irreverent architecture collective Assemble are incubating Material Institute, a new fashion and textile school for local talent. It might seem like an unexpected collaboration—and location—but it actually makes perfect sense.

As it has demonstrated through projects like the Granby Workshop in Liverpool, England, Assemble is well versed in creating flexible, creative workspaces that contribute to equitable neighborhood growth. And MONA curator and head of social projects Kirsha Kaechele spent a decade in New Orleans in the 2000s initiating community programs.

Fashion culture in New Orleans is rich, says Assemble founding member Maria Lisogorskaya, “but there wasn’t a formal place to study or access the spaces to produce it.” Filling the gap, Material Institute will provide production space, mentorships, training, and educational programming that MONA conceives as Black Mountain College meets MIT Media Lab and the Stanford d.school.

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The school’s design is the result of iterative, ad hoc interventions taking shape in parallel with dynamic programming. For example, one distinctive feature, a series of jagged cinder-block windows, happened by accident: During demolition, the team found that the natural oval shape the opening took “looked cool,” as Kaechele puts it, and decided to keep it.

“We wanted the space to feel open-source, and we wanted the architecture process to be radical,” says Kaechele. And while MONA and Assemble did create some master plans and sketches, those have “gone out the window,” she says. “The space works well that way.”

“We grappled with how to make the space functional but also feel valued in an area with limited public-sector investment,” adds Lisogorskaya. “We wanted to make it feel more permanent and solid, while also communicating that it’s a place for experimentation.”

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