Department of Seaweed

Many designers today are faced with an problem. They want to create new things — they are designers, after all. But everything has already been designed. One answer to this contradictory situation is not to invest creativity in refining consumer products, but to conduct basic research.

A particularly experimental design researcher is Julia Lohmann. Her work focuses on natural materials. At a fish market in Japan, she discovered seaweed, a material with promising properties. Seaweed can be grown in an ecologically sustainable way. It grows several meters per year and even cleans its surroundings of pollution. It grows in the ocean, the largest cropgrowing area the planet has to offer.

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For more than ten years now, Julia Lohmann has experimented with seaweed. She is not a theorist, but a practitioner who works a lot with her hands and senses. She doesn’t sit in an office at the computer, but works directly with the materials she has collected. Her workspace is a mix of studio, laboratory, and cabinet of curiosities.

The design objects are primarily a means of communication with which she aims to inspire people and raise awareness for seaweed as a material.

Seaweed has a very peculiar aesthetic appearance: It fluctuates between various green and brown tones and is translucent. Lohmann usually gets her seaweed from Japan in dried form. First, she soaks the up to two meters long and half-meter wide leaves in water and a special solution that keeps the material flexible. Then the processing starts. The seaweed is dried, pressed, ironed, and sewn, cut by laser, used as a veneer or a covering material. She also combines the seaweed with other materials — for example, wood, steel, and bamboo; and textiles such as felt or wool. For Lohmann, the resulting design objects are primarily a means of communication with which she aims to inspire people and raise awareness for seaweed as a material. To this end, she has also founded the Department of Seaweed, a mobile research station that travels to universities and exhibition spaces.

The Department of Seaweed develops less in the way of concrete solutions, but opens up room for thought. As a place of speculative design research, it conveys environmentally and socially sustainable visions for the future.

Friedrich von Borries, born in 1974, is an architect. He teaches Design Theory at the Hochschule für bildende Künste in Hamburg and runs the Projektbüro Friedrich von Borries in Berlin. The relationship between design and social development lies at the heart of his work, which exists in the border zone between urban planning, architecture, design, and art. “As scholars, we try to understand the world. As designers, we try to change it.”