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Julia Lohmann on What Design Can Do

One of the most intriguing speakers at today’s What Design Can Do conference in Amstedam was German designer Julia Lohmann.  We grabbed ten minutes with her for a one-on-one.

By Gabrielle Kennedy / 26-05-2011

When Julia Lohmann’s first child was born one and a half years ago, the shape of his world was already decided.  Every facet of that little boy’s material existence has at one point or another been held in the hands of a designer.

“I just find it amazing to think about,” Lohmann says.  “He could have been born in a cave or in the jungle, but he was born in London and everything he will ever encounter has been shaped by design.”

Her point is that the design industry has power and with this it must not simply support the status quo, but question it so as to move it forward in a more sustainable way.  “Then it can become really powerful,” she says, “because even if we slightly shift this world, the difference will be huge.”

Lohmann’s mental process is to ask herself questions. “I have established views and if I really think about it, I don’t know why or even if they are even true.  My design is a way of figuring out what is going on.”

Her focus is animals or dead animals, particularly that pivotal moment when people remove themselves mentally from an animal’s fate.

Industrialization has made objects so accessible and cheap that in developed cities, in particular, people have lost a mental and emotional connection to an object’s origins.  This is even more apparent when it comes to the more unpalatable or ugly aspects of food production.

“I want to design objects that eliminate this break or gap people have between what is on their plate and how it got there,” Lohmann says.

A ceiling made from the stomach of sheep, a gutted carcass cast in resin, vessels made from animal bones, and porcelain jewellery made by casting frozen baby mice.

“Why do we balk in horror at the site of any of this?” asks Lohmann.  “It is illogical.”

Lohmann’s best known piece is a leather sofa in the shape of a headless cow.  “A typical sofa uses six or seven hides to eliminate areas that are creased or reveal actual parts of the cow” she says.  “I use the whole hide, but the head and feet are chopped off because that is what happens in the slaughter house.”

Critics have condemned the work as elitist and expensive but Lohmann remains unapologetic.  “The function of my objects is to tell a story,” she says.  “Viewers can see this and then go home and perhaps think or feel differently about the objects surrounding their own lives.”

Once Alessandro Mendini said that if Lohmann’s work made it into a design book, it would be a very sad day for design.  “I told him my work brings things back to reality.  I am stepping over a boundary to a place where people still have emotions and besides, is an object about death more ethical if it hides the starting point of death?”

Mendini late sent her a hand written apology.

Now Lohmann is exploring what she refers to as the “rock pools” of design, a middle ground that can make a difference.   During the Textiles breakout session today, it quickly became clear that design is far too divided between mass-market production and smaller hand-crafted design.  Both mindsets are fixed and neither mindset has the power to really create change.  

“You can neither be too far outside nor too far inside the system to really fashion change,” Lohmann admits,  “but I see museums, like Holland’s Textile Museum as places where new ideas can grow.  Museums should now not just be places that focus on the past and present, but be more about stretching forward.  Museum should be a place for R & D and where industry can outsource the risk taking to.”

Images: main from top Lohmann presenting at the What Design Can Do conference in Amsterdam (by Alexandra Georgescu), small from top experimenting with algae, "Flock" (from sheep's stomachs), "Tidal Ossuary" (from bones), "Snow-whites" (dead mice), "Cow benches" and "Lasting Void."

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