Let’s put things straight. Julia Lohmann loves animals. She loves them passionately, in fact. This is something that you understand clearly after talking to her for only five minutes. Because Lohmann uses animals’ interiors as well as lots of other biological materials in her designs, I have to admit that before meeting her in her London studio I had a few preconceived notions about her.
The Lasting Void is a resin and fibreglass seat made by casting the internal cavity of a calf. “It died of natural causes,” points out Lohmann. Okay, that’s good enough.
Yet the whole idea – despite undeniably beautiful results – leaves one somewhat puzzled and asking lots of questions. Why would a young woman deal want to deal with these things? Why explore death when you have your whole life in front of you? Is this some kind of fetish, or a media-attracting plot?
The open letters with Italian architect and designer Alessandro Mendini certainly played a big role in raising these questions. “I know design now is not an idyll and I also know that one is forced to take extreme action to find innovations and new languages,” wrote Mendini in an open letter to Didier Krzentowski, the owner of the Parisian Galerie Kreo, who commissioned The Lasting Void.
“However, Julia’s creative energy, in the case of your stool, truly seems to be badly directed. I do not understand what so much unpleasantness is supposed to demonstrate. If the photograph of her stool enters into the history books of design, this will be one of the most bitter examples, an extremely sad moment in the history of objects.
"It brings to mind the items made out of human skin in the concentration camps, the horse skin chaise-longue by Le Corbusier, elephant foot stools or tribal leopard skin rugs.
"I can see no theoretical, aesthetic, methodological or anthropological reason which justifies the idea of immortalising a dead animal’s last breath, in order sadistically to propose it as an item for everyday use, directly expressed in its suffering. The idea is cynical and pointless, it is simply turning the torture of a dead body into entertainment.”
“I felt this was a real challenge,” admits Lohmann. “Being openly criticised by one of the greatest maestros gave me an opportunity to explain the reasoning behind my choices.”
With her designs, Lohmann wishes to ask questions about the way in which people consume their resources. “People buy meat every day and it is nicely cut and packaged into attractive boxes or trays in the shop. None of the pain and suffering of the slaughtering process is actually passed down to us as consumers and as a consequence very few people think about it.”
This, according to Lohmann, shows a lack of respect towards animals, and constitutes a collective lie.
“Design should stop us from becoming numb to the world and instead prompt us to rethink how we lead our lives,” she wrote to Mendini.
“Thousands of cows are slaughtered every day in the EU alone, supplying us with 6.3 million tons of beef per year – in an accepted process of anonymous killing and docile consumption of nondescript products that often disguise their animal origin.
The calf I used to make The Lasting Void was a waste product from this process. Deemed unfit for human consumption after it had died of natural causes in the field it was going to be incinerated. By casting the negative space inside it I preserved the memory of a single, discarded creature that was deemed of no value for conventional use.”
The final missive in this epistolary exchange was a note from Mendini to Lohmann in which he simply wrote, “I now understand”.
In her studio, Lohmann collects algae, grows crystals, explores ways to preserve sheep’s stomachs. She is simply fascinated by two great opposites: growth and decay. After finishing her Bachelor or Arts in graphic design, she started using maggots to create paintings.
“I would put the maggots into paint and let them walk freely on a surface,” she says. “The result was beautiful patterns.” And a lot of food for thought, because, inherently, we all dislike maggots and find them repulsive creatures.
“But why?” wonders Lohmann. “It’s just because we instinctively connect them to the idea of death. I wanted to see if by putting these animals out of context, the horror that they raise would end.”
In 2001 Lohmann entered the Tate Modern with her husband, Gero Grundmann (also a designer), got to the top floor and went into the panoramic room armed with maggots, bottles of ink, paper and washing lines. Her unauthorised maggot-painting performance was very much liked by a lot of visitors.
“I have always been fascinated by nature and how things grow and develop,” she says. During my visit to her studio, she was busy growing crystals on cardboard structures to make some lamps for Libby Sellers, the London gallery operator.
“I put the structure in an oversaturated solution of magnesium ammonium sulfate then cool it down. The crystals grow in about twenty-four hours. My challenge is to manage their growth in an aesthetically pleasant way.”
Seeing the care and attention that she puts into handling these materials, it is obvious that her relationship with nature is clean, spontaneous and sincere. She reminds me of an eco-warrior but without the anger.
She talks enthusiastically of her months spent on a horse farm in Iceland, for instance – of the getting up at dawn, the hard physical work, the herding of sheep in the highlands. And about her installation entitled The Catch – 90 m² of towering waves made of used empty fish boxes taken from Sapporo’s fish market. “I got the idea while walking through Tokyo’s Tsukiji fish market,” she says.
“Such an enormous amount of fish is taken away from the seas every day that it is hard to believe there will be any left soon. So the viewers of the installation are confronted with a vast empty ocean depleted by overfishing.” It’s a gentle yet powerful way to shake our faith in endless supplies of marine life.
I am not surprised to hear that Lohmann is not a vegetarian. Somehow I expected it. Lohmann touches carefully the algae that she collects, dries and varnishes in her studio. Much of it will be turned into limited-edition lamps.
The way she strokes it – just like the way in which she handles her solidified sheep’s stomach (also soon to be a shade) leaves no room for doubt. This woman is someone who cares deeply about nature, in a matter-of-fact way. She does not deny the life cycle and appreciates the large-eats-small situation.
One word springs to mind when thinking about her work: respect. Lohmann respects life, she cherishes it. And this understanding is the key to accessing her world, and her work. “After all,” she says, “my dream when I was a kid was to be a vet.”