Julia LohmannProduct Designer (1977-)
Design Mart - Design Museum Exhibition
14 January to 19 February 2006
By using her work to explore provocative contemporary issues such as our relationship to animals, the German-born, London-based designer JULIA LOHMANN (1977-) transforms the practice of product design into a rich and complex medium of social investigation.
From a distance, Julia Lohmann’s lights look exquisite, if surreal – each a subtly different shape, colour and degree of translucence. As soon as you realise that they are made from tripe – a preserved sheep’s stomach – they take on a different meaning. Like the cow benches that she moulds in the shape of a cow’s back and upholsters in cow’s hide, the lights are intended to “trigger feelings oscillating between attraction and disgust”.
Born in Hildesheim, Germany in 1977, Lohmann became interested in design on childhood walks with her father when they collected abandoned objects to create strange creatures. After graduating in graphic design from the Surrey Institute, she studied design products at the Royal College of Art, London. Lohmann exhibited in the first Design Mart exhibition at the Design Museum in autumn 2004, and was one of five featured designers to be awarded a bursary by the Esmée Fairbairn Foundation and to participate in the Great Brits exhibition presented in Milan in spring 2005 by the Design Museum and British Council. He work has since been commissioned by the French National Art Collection, Galerie KREO in Paris and the droog® design group.
Julia Lohmann began her investigation into the contradictions in our relationship to animals as sources of food and materials at the RCA. By working with offal, off-cuts of leather and other meat industry waste products, she probes those contradictions while “giving value to leftovers”. Polemical though her work is, everything Lohmann designs is intended to be useful – “I would hate to design something useless”.
© Design Museum
Q. When did you first become aware of - and interested in – design?
A. In my family art and design have always played an important role. As a child my father and I collected driftwood on the beach to make sculptures from it. At the same time my older brother self-published an illustrated book about his travel experiences in India. There seemed to be no boundary between art and design.
Q. Why did you decide to study it?
A. Initially I considered three subjects: Art, Design and Veterinary Medicine (all three of which are linked to my current work in one way or another). In secondary school I had a very good art teacher who made me feel that my own ideas were worth pursuing. I applied to design because it allows you to develop your own ideas and concepts and step into a different world with every new project.
Q. What was the influence of your design education on your work?
A. At the Fachhochschule in Hildesheim I learned about composition and attention to detail through life drawing, painting and calligraphy. During my BA in Graphic Design at the Surrey Institute of Art and Design in Epsom I learned that trying something new is much more exciting and just as rewarding as doing what you know you can do well. My tutors gave me the freedom to develop my first products within the graphic design course.
At the RCA I met people who were very inspiring. True to what I had learned in Epsom I looked for new challenges by studying design products despite my background being in graphic design. The first year was quite daunting with me thinking that everyone else knows much more than I do, but in the second year I decided to forget everything product design is supposed to be and just got on with what I enjoyed most. I managed to find my own voice.
Q. What were your design objectives as a student?
A. At the RCA I pushed myself really hard by continuously developing and discarding ideas because I did not consider them strong enough. Only in the second year I left myself enough time to develop ideas into coherent and strong concepts. My main objective was to create something that is true to myself.
Q. How have your objectives evolved since leaving the RCA?
A. I have been working on my own projects as well as on graphic design commissions together with my partner Gero Grundmann. I have learned to market my work and to communicate with agents, gallerists, producers and clients.
Q. How important is function to your work?
A. For me, the function of an object goes beyond the question as to whether you can use it well or can sit comfortably. My objects also function as pieces of communication.
Q. Much of your work has explored our relationship with animals. When and why did you become interested in this theme?
A. Since my childhood I have always been very fond of animals. I rescued earthworms on rainy days, played with stray dogs on holiday in Spain and even went on hunger strike (for several hours!) when my parents refused to buy me a guinea pig. Just before enrolling at the RCA I spent three months working on a horse and sheep farm in Iceland. Raising animals for slaughter does not allow you to create an artificial distance between food and its source. Upon returning to the UK these experiences became the starting point for my current work.
Q. Why did you decide to make lights from animal waste such as sheep's stomachs?
A. All animal parts are useful but we do not value them equally. We wear some and throw others away in disgust, probably because we do not want to be reminded of the animal we killed. I want to find out where we draw the line between what we regard as beautiful or disgusting. Using animal materials that are deemed worthless in an unexpected but beautiful way encourages the viewer to question their own position or reaction to animal materials.
Q. How did the Cow Benches come about?
A. There is a gap between living animals and the materials and products we make from them. In recent years the gap has become fragmented. It is now extremely wide in some areas, such as chicken becoming dinosaur-shaped fried food. In other areas it is narrow, for example living tissue and bone being grown in the shape it will be used in as a product. I wanted to design an object to bridge this gap. I used the leather of a commonly slaughtered animal to make an object that is commonly made from it: the leather couch. Instead of removing traces of the animal’s life I embraced them and eliminated the distance between the animal origins of the material and its utilization by humans.
The cow benches are hand-sculpted objects in the shape and size of a cow’s torso, each upholstered with a single cow hide. The leather is placed in the same position as it was on the living animal. The leather bears occasional markings, the neck part still showing folds caused by the cow’s movement and occasional scars reminding us of the animal’s life.
Q. Do you consider your work to be part of a tradition?
A. Yes, that of using animals to sustain us in a respectful and responsible way. Craftsmanship is very important in honoring the animals I use.
Q. Which other designers – past or present – do you find inspiring and interesting?
A. I am inspired by Thomas Heatherwick and other designers working on the threshold of art and design. I am also inspired by artists such as Barbara Hepworth, Anthony Gormley and Olafur Eliasson, but mostly I search for inspiration in fields as far removed from design as possible - the most inspiring thing I have seen recently was the fish market in Tokyo.
Q. What are your objectives for the future?
A. To continue to work on self-initiated projects, to put more designs into production and to investigate other subjects as deeply as I have probed animal material.
© Design Museum
Visit Julia Lohmann’s website at julialohmann.co.uk
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