With an almost artisanal quality, Julia Lohmann’s research adds a new chapter to the history of materials — to include seaweed. Johanna Agerman Ross portrays the designer and explains why Lohmann has no interest in designing utilitarian objects for industrial production, but prefers to work in her studio with intriguing materials.
Up the slope to the lecture theater in the Sackler Centre of the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, you could find the German designer Julia Lohmann for a large part of 2013. As an artist in residence at the museum, she set up her own department within the venerated institution. True to the traditional divisions of the museum into different departments according to material such as glass, metalwork, and ceramics, Lohmann named her domain the Department of Seaweed. And like the name suggested, seaweed, or kelp, became her material focus for the duration of the residency.
As the months went by, the light and airy studio she inhabited gradually filled with material and structural seaweed-based experiments, as Lohmann searched for ways of incorporating seaweed into both industrial and craft manufacture. “I work through analogies with other materials,” said Lohmann at the time. “If the analogy is glass, for example, the translucence is very important and colors might come in; I’m trying different dyes,” she says. “If the analogy is wood, it’s very important to see which adhesives to use and what veneers to develop. Another analogy is leather, where of course you have to try to keep the kelp flexible and give it strength at the same time.” During the residency the raw material became something altogether different to the harvested natural kelp that Lohmann first encountered while on the S-AIR residency in Sapporo, Japan, six years earlier.
This type of material experimentation — taking a previously unexplored material and adapting it for use within manufacturing — has always been a feature of design. It’s a large part of the type of design and decorative arts that the Victoria and Albert Museum has been collecting since its establishment in 1852. Take for example the red clay that Staffordshire potters started exploring as a heat-resistant material in the seventeenth century and that spurred a whole industry, or the first experimentations in injection molding by manufacturers around Brera in the 1960s, which reinvented the shape and construction of furniture in the late twentieth century. But it seems that the design industry has developed a dependence on materials that are no longer viable if we look at them as part of a bigger picture. As we are facing huge environmental challenges caused by our overconsumption of fossil fuels and overexploitation of regenerative natural resources, it’s an issue that needs urgent attention. And faced with this scenario, Lohmann posits herself as someone who actively questions our material history, or rather our dependence on it, and whether it’s time to rethink the value system of design altogether. Through her now 15-year practice, she has been exploring whether a new system can be found through connecting design with the natural world.
“There are professions more harmful than industrial design, but only a few of them,” said Austrian-American designer-activist Victor Papanek back in 1971 in the book Design for the Real World. But while Papanek’s approach was largely built on connecting design practice with the developing world, Lohmann’s is based around a process that raises awareness of the origins of the materials that we surround ourselves with. There is a current disconnect between our contemporary lifestyles and the plant and animal worlds, which these lifestyles either depend on or affect negatively through pollution and exploitation. Through material experimentation, Lohmann aims to reconnect the two.
Lohmann earned her MA in Design Products at the Royal College of Art in 2004. Working both alone and in collaboration with her partner Gero Grundmann, past projects have utilized calf carcasses ready for incineration as molds for benches; discarded sheep stomachs as raw materials for pendant light shades; and discarded bones as beautiful ornaments. “Design should stop us from becoming numb to the world and instead prompt us to rethink how we lead our lives,” says Lohmann in Gareth Williams’ book 21: Twenty One: 21 Designers for 21st Century Britain from 2012. “I am hoping to develop objects that will raise questions about how we interact with the world around us, how we consume resources, and to which purpose we design.”
To date her work hasn’t been readily available as consumer objects, and so far none of her research has reached industry as a finished piece. But industrial manufacture — the Holy Grail for the design profession — isn’t necessarily the end goal for Lohmann. So far her projects have either been commissioned or supported by cultural institutions such as the Victoria and Albert Museum and the British Council, and when they are sold, it’s been through galleries dedicated to expensive limited-edition design including Galerie Kreo in Paris and Gallery Libby Sellers in London. But Lohmann isn’t concerned about sales of her end product. Instead she sees the exhibition venues as an effective platform to show her research and prompt discussion and reflection. After all, a work displayed in a public context can have a bigger impact and lead to a different kind of contemplation than something considered in the confines of home.
Lohmann first came to Britain from Germany to study a BA in graphic design at Surrey Institute of Art and Design, where she graduated in 2001. In many ways her work can still be considered in the vein of communication. The debates her work provokes are well-suited for the environment in which it’s displayed. Where better, for example, to consider the possibilities of kelp in design than in a institution dedicated to material culture spanning 5,000 years?
“I see the museum as an infrastructural node for this type of design. It is a public space dedicated to keeping and sharing knowledge of our past and present,” writes Lohmann in her upcoming PhD thesis, done jointly between the RCA and the Victoria and Albert Museum.
And it’s here in the intersection between textual and material research that Lohmann makes a real impact on how we engage with and regard the role of the contemporary designer — as an explorer, rather than a giver of form.