When I met Marion Lean, a graduate of our MA in Design: Critical Practice, to chat about her work, the college campus was going through major improvements; as a result, our interviewing resources were limited to a table in Loafers Café and notes on paper, the old-fashioned way. This was in fact quite fitting, as Marion’s work aims to take people back to the physical. “It means a lot more when we meet like this. It’s not the same as on the phone, or on the Internet. You understand the personality of the person you’re talking to.”
Marion, who graduated with the class of 2012, is Scottish and has a background in textile design; she is currently working as a designer in residence at the Bioengineering department of Imperial College- although she couldn’t talk about it too much at the time. She did reveal that the scientists were very excited about design: “A lot of them have artistic hobbies, the same way someone artistic like me would be interested in science. We are always interested in the other side”.
Marion’s work has certainly reflected her interest in science, and most particularly, in medicine. Her graduation project “Organ Alpha”, developed with her classmate Avi Ashkenazi, was an installation trying to depict, through sounds and fabrics, the experience of being inside the human body (or, to be more precise, inside a giant stomach). “We were very metaphorical, the way Goldsmiths encourages you to be”, Marion says, explaining that the project was trying to paint the portrait of the experience as we imagine it rather than to be scientifically accurate. To this purpose, she used textiles, a language she understands well.
The connection between textiles and the body goes further in Marion’s work: “When you’re done wearing a dress, you don’t just throw it away. You clean it if it needs to be cleaned, you take care of it; then why would you mistreat and throw away your body?” Based on this principle, Marion imagined an anti-smoking campaign which visualises, through fabrics, the internal damage caused by smoking. Thus, textiles can help us see changes that usually remain unseen; we are always looking to beautify ourselves on the outside, but we can’t see the stains caused by our life choices on the inside. The images used to deter people from smoking are usually hideous and off-putting, but: “that’s not what I was going for. I wanted to show that the body is beautiful”. She even placed the photograph of the campaign’s model on the bottom of transparent ashtrays, hoping that it would make smokers hesitate before putting out their cigarette on the girl’s beautiful face.
Marion has a sense of wonder about bodies and how they work, and she is not afraid to talk about topics that usually embarrass people. When she received her first invitation for a cervical screening at the age of 20 (as it is customary in Scotland), Marion was surprised to find out that other girls her age were not intending to make use of this free, potentially life-saving medical service. “They were acting as if it was not something that could affect them, but in fact they were scared of the procedure”. To address the fear and misunderstandings surrounding this process, she designed a more user-friendly invitation pack, which includes a silk printed comfort square to be taken to the test. “Getting people to have these conversations is the most important thing”, Marion opines. The Organ Alpha project made many people open up to her about their various health problems, and while she was not able to help them, she was glad that they felt comfortable having the talk.
Most of her work is not about fashion or science, however, but about building bridges between cultures and disciplines. If she absolutely had to pick a label, “I would stick with experience design, although it’s pretty vague. But why do I have to have a label of any kind?” Though she admits she may change her mind: “Ask me again in five years”. Initially, Marion thought she would like to be a fashion designer, but she reconsidered after working in the field: “High fashion is so prohibitive. You and I couldn’t go to Fashion Week, because we are not rich enough, or famous enough. It’s not for us. The value of high fashion is divorced from its actual value in terms of materials, quality, as a physical object.” Marion understands fashion in terms of experiences: the mood improvements brought on by wearing your favorite item of clothing, as simple as it may be, design-wise, and the memories you associate with it and make it unique.
The MA in Design: Critical Practice at Goldsmiths is about starting with your own practice, taking it apart and reclaiming it at the end, Marion explains; thus, she brought her experience as a textile designer and ended up understanding textiles as experience. She also enjoyed the international environment- even though many of her classmates have gone back home, she can now boast having friends all over the world.
At the time of our meeting, Marion was preparing for “Stomach”, an exhibition at Hoxton Gallery, featuring some of her work with latex garments, a material that she is trying to de-fetishize and use in a different context. Projects like these make her wonder, sometimes: is she an artist or is she a designer? But what is the difference? “Maybe art is more about love and passion, and design is about change- although you can design with love and passion”. But in the end, who needs labels anyway?
Photos courtesy of Marion Lean