A Structure for Possibilities: an Interview with Ania Jaworska

Published November 21, 2019

Ania Jaworska’s work might catch you off guard. The Polish-born, Chicago-based architect’s work straddles the realms of art and architecture, and contains multitudes of literal and metaphorical depth not necessarily apparent at first glance. Take for instance, her series of screen prints, “Subjective Catalog of Columns,” which explores Greek columns as forms in Western architecture, but also as social, cultural, and historical totems. Or her furniture series “SET,” which may seem like stoic contemporary furniture until you interact with it and realize how it challenges the ways we think of, and interact with, everyday objects like coffee tables and chairs. 

Besides producing work that has graced the floors and walls of museums and galleries like the MCA, Volume Gallery, and the Graham Foundation, Ania also teaches as a Clinical Assistant Professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago, School of Architecture, a position that plays a crucial role in her artistic practice.

Recently, Ania and her husband and long-time collaborator, Zack Ostrowski (aka rapper and performance artist Beverly Fre$h), welcomed us into their apartment-slash-studio in Buena Park. Seated at their dining room table surrounded by Zack’s collages, an intimidating floor-to-ceiling bookcase, and hundreds of Zack’s alphabetized cassettes that Ania meticulously mounted to the wall of the nearby hallway, we discussed the explorative approach that leads to her multi-layered structures, her upcoming projects, and the couple’s collaborative beginnings.

Jacob Victorine
Ania Jaworska
Zack Ostrowski

Our respective practices are really different, but from the beginning we started helping each other out and we realized how valuable we were to one another's practice. Then our first true collaboration was probably our zine Architectures with Character. And that was before we moved here, so probably 11 years ago.

We were both at the Cranbrook Academy of Art, so we spent two years deeply thinking about our own practices. I was trying to find my position within the field, what I could offer at the time. I was interested in how to break down architecture as a serious business. It takes time, takes money, takes a lot of people. I was teasing out stories, teasing out narratives out of architecture. That's when the zine came in because it seemed like the right format to represent ideas. It was very funny and it was a social commentary on our own culture, on our own ideas about how we live.

Print from "Subjective Catalog of Columns" (2015)

Would you talk more about what role architecture, versus art, plays in your work. Do you see separate definitions for the two and, if so, how do you bridge them?

In my case, maybe because I also teach, I think of architecture as an exploration of ideas. In academia, of course, students produce theoretical projects through which they speculate on our built environment. I think it’s not unlike the way art speculates or is tied to a larger theoretical body of knowledge. I don’t know if there’s necessarily a huge distinction in terms of a conceptual approach, because many times architecture is also about the idea itself. Where we live, it’s all fiction, right? It’s somebody’s fiction, and we take it for granted. I like to think about new ways that our environment can look and function often through examining the familiar

Coffee table from "SET" (2016)

A good example is the course I taught last semester called “Object, Room, House with Its Own Rules.” Along with the students, we explored our spatial, cultural, and physical conditions of interaction with objects such as a table, a chair, a shelf, and a couch. It was a fantastic exploration where students were given prompts that made them think about space, but also about actions.

They were asked to design a “chair that is not there,” or a “chair to receive bad news in,” or a “chair for many,” or a “table that divides space but connects people,” or a “shelf that is for big things.” They had to define what these common properties mean, for example what constitutes “big,” and then we moved on to building the objects. We were critically examining the meaning of mundane elements, but through these prompts that opened a new kind of narrative and interaction.

We then extended those ideas into architectural concepts and conditions. What type of room has a table that connects people but divides space? We were finding those kinds of tensions. It started with a table, but then we were thinking about walls, floors, ceiling, corners, windows, doors. All of these elements started to play a role in this big act, or maybe a play of connecting and disconnecting. Which, naturally, we realized, there are a lot of elements like this around us, but when they become more exaggerated, more prominent, they become part of a new type of narrative and that’s where the invention of things happens.

Jaworska's Chicago Apartment

That aligns with your own practice. Even the prompt you gave them is already questioning, meddling with the standards and expectations of these mundane objects. A lot of your work is the critical probing of the built environment, or what’s around us. It calls it into question and brings about an awareness of it that’s at once critical, but also honors it, which is a unique aspect of your practice. For most people, it’s a critique, and it ends there, but for you it’s an opportunity, it’s honoring, it’s acknowledging, it’s tradition, it’s history, but it’s also meddling with the structure and making it something new.

We had a component of performance in that class, and I invited Zack to do a workshop, which was absolutely fantastic. The students actually built their objects. They were quite big. We had this super big room, and it became very apparent that we had to do a mini play. Their objects were complex and we didn’t want the students to just explain them, we wanted people to experience them and for the students to activate them through performance.

And you might not think of that there is a connection between performance art and architecture—or that this is a non-traditional approach to an architecture studio, but performance is inherent in architecture. There’s a social choreography that’s dictated by the built environment and these social codes that emerge. It’s something that’s there, but it’s often just unquestioned or overlooked, so you’re magnifying those things.

"SET" (2016)

Something I’m curious about is what role you feel community plays in your practice. I’m thinking, in particular, about your furniture series “SET.”

In terms of working on “SET,” a lot of people were involved. The production of the series was quite intense. I tried to produce most of it in the wood shop at UIC to have as much control as possible, but a lot of things were more difficult than I thought they would be. We had a lot of help from grad students, undergrad students, colleagues, Zack, friends…

My dad.

Zack’s dad had to assist with buffing the lacquer because it became such an involved project. 

It’s interesting that the furniture is often photographed on its own when I think it should be photographed with people to demonstrate what it actually does. It needs to be experienced to be fully understood because, let’s say, the table in that series is uncomfortable in terms of interactions. The table has big cylindrical legs on both sides, which then renders those sides completely useless for sitting. It forces four people to be very close to each other and shift their things to the edges and start to think about the typology of the table. 

"That’s what I like about the connection between art and architecture: breaking things down into basic truths, but then taking those truths and stretching them to such extreme limits that they become new things and new narratives."

Then the coffee tables are a series of vertical pegs. The pegs are quite close to each other, so you can still put a book horizontally on it. You can still put your coffee on top of it. It’s completely functional even though it challenges the surface of a coffee table. It’s called “SET” because it’s a set of objects, but also because it’s a set for action. It’s a stage for both the object and a person’s behavior with the object, and I think that is quite impactful.

Do you often think of use when you’re designing?

Yeah, obviously, but I think about use and maybe offering the new—well, I don’t like the word “new,” but maybe different way of approaching an object, or a space.

You’re really concerned with it functioning correctly and being comfortable. This is a generalization, but avant-garde chairs are not the most comfortable thing to spend time in and actually use. They’re more of an idea than something functional, and you’re concerned that it’s a concept, but also that it’s functional and comfortable, and about different ways it can be used.

Business Card Mockups for Jaworska and Ostrowski's new practice, Associates Associates

What about any upcoming projects?

We are going to launch a practice together called Associates Associates. Our practice is growing into a more formalized studio that will offer a full range of design, starting from things like graphic design and products to large-scale projects like interiors, residences, stores, and other commercial buildings.

I’m also going to be part of the textile company Kvadrat’s exhibition for Milan Design Week. I’m working on the second show for Volume Gallery. I was also invited by the Craft Center in Taiwan to do this exchange program where I’ll work with Taiwanese craftspeople. In my case, it’s lacquer, which was quite an immediate connection.

"It’s interesting that the furniture is often photographed on its own when I think it should be photographed with people to demonstrate what it actually does."

What I did with “SET” was more industrial, even though we had to buff everything by hand. In this case, they use the natural lacquer that comes from a lacquer tree that was drained. There is a long process of curing, and then put on many, many layers. It’s super laborious, super time-consuming, and, therefore, quite expensive. We met with old lacquer masters who committed their life to the art of traditional lacquer techniques along with a younger generation—many times grandchildren of the master—who are trying to popularize it and figure out contemporary implementations and techniques. 

I was asked to make something that’s on the body, either jewelry, a small object or a purse. It’s interesting to all of a sudden work on a completely different scale and to have to reevaluate my thinking about the body and space and focus more on the specific space of the body. The piece is going to be a necklace, but one that is challenging in terms of how it’s used. It’s going to use the body as a structure for possibilities.

Print from "Subjective Catalog of Columns" (2015)

Speaking of travel, I think that the argument can be made in some ways that you’re an insider because of where you teach, and because you’ve had work in major galleries, and also that in some ways you’re an outsider since you’re creating work in the US as someone who didn’t grow up here. I’m wondering how you feel about that dichotomy, and also about how you engage with American culture and if you feel like there are specific ways that are different than someone who grew up here.

I’ve been thinking about this recently quite a bit, about different places where I come from and have lived. I grew up in post-communist Poland where resources were limited and if you wanted to do something you had to do it yourself, you had to hustle for things. Because of this, we have our own approach or attitude to life, and of course, that eventually changes from generation to generation.

Maybe a better story is that I came here just randomly to visit my family. There wasn’t a big move planned. I thought I was coming just for a vacation to escape the winter in Poland. And back then, I didn’t know a lot about the nuances of American culture. For example, the first TV show I saw was Seinfeld where the freaking marble rye was stolen from an old lady in order to impress George’s future in-laws. It blew my mind because this scenario would have never existed in Poland, this type of humor. Zack also introduced me to a lot of comedy, and one thing that is very distinct about a culture is its sense of humor. Through comedy, our cultures are represented more clearly. I’ve been going back to that quite a bit.

Prints hung in Jaworska's Chicago apartment

Do you feel those experiences have opened up your work to more possibilities, in terms of the way it can engage either with difficult subjects or humor?

Yeah, and I think also being the outsider as you say, and having relationships outside of your own country, being outside of your own bubble and having a critical distance from the things that you believe, or that all the people around you believe. It’s always productive for me to know there are other possibilities. I don’t think it’s absolutely specific to me being in this country, but seeing different perspectives is something that can offer, maybe liberate us a little bit from constructs.