Design research
Shaping the future

Julia Lohmann | Department of Seaweed
Julia Lohmann | Department of Seaweed | © Design Display. Photo: Noortje Knulst

Seaweed, solar curtains and smart textiles: female designers develop solutions for current and future challenges.

Design doesn’t always need to create a shape nor does a process necessarily result in a finished product. It is precisely for this reason that design research offers a glimpse at designing the future. Gesche Joost, professor at the Berlin University of The Arts (UdK – Universität der Künste) explores the possibilities offered by digital technology. Her research spans a wide range, focusing on how technological innovations foster interaction, how to link functioning communities or raise the visibility of minorities in social media, for example. Joost’s lab at the UdK also studies communication between humans and machines, which is playing an ever increasing role. In addition, the lab links interdisciplinary projects and research to form a common international digital network.

Animal hides and plant skins in Design

Radically innovative approaches with original materials are also emerging in the field of materials research. Designer Julia Lohmann, professor at the University of Fine Arts (HFBK) in Hamburg, conducts research on seaweed as an alternative to other natural raw materials such as leather, veneer or parchment, and as a possible substitute of fossil raw materials. Since working on her thesis in the area of Design Products at the Royal Academy of Arts, where she graduated in 2004, Lohmann has been experimenting with a wide range of unusual materials from flora and fauna. Among them: sheep stomachs for lamp shades, and Victorian tidal bones from the Thames – a raw material she rates as a valuable new resource and has used to create vases and chess figures.

Julia Lohmann | Department of Seaweed
Julia Lohmann | Department of Seaweed | © Design Display. Photo: Noortje Knulst
Lohmann made a name for herself with her cow benches. Contrary to conventional sofas, these bovine leather seats with its naturalistic covers and shapes indeed look like the animals had parted with their hide – lives – so that the bench could be created.

Lohmann went on to teach in the study program of Design Products from 2008 to 2010. In 2013, she was artist-in-residence at the Victoria and Albert Museum, where she established the Department of Seaweed. She called it a “space for joint speculative research for the future”. The purpose of this public area was not only to present objects made of seaweed and showcase their material quality and properties, but also to allow a wide audience to better understand her research work. Lohmann was interested in luring visitors to venture on a conceptual path and think back to the past as well as onwards to the future: to dive back into the ocean and its sensual, olfactory elements, and, on to the future, to imagine the possible applications that the newly-acquired knowledge had developed.

Julia Lohmann | Installation View Design Display
Julia Lohmann | Installation View Design Display | Photo: Michael Jungblut
Lohmann has not created specific products but rather sculptural objects that engage the imagination and invite speculation. “The main thing is that they show the immense potential of this renewable raw materialˮ, she points out.

Tedious Resource development

These works with their amorphous organic aspects were also showcased in the Design on Display show in the exhibition complex “Autostadt” in Wolfsburg. The Design on Display series always showcases two current approaches to design. For the exhibit series Design Research, curator and design theorist Friedrich von Borries juxtaposed Julia Lohmann’s seaweed objects with Dutch artist Petra Blaisse’s solar cell curtain.

Petra Blaisse | Installationsansicht Design Display
Petra Blaisse | Installationsansicht Design Display | Photo: Michael Jungblut
Like Lohmann, Blaisse also experiments and conducts research to explore new opportunities in design and resource development. Her solar curtain works already display their different specific functions: they protect, create electricity through solar cells, separate spaces or open them up, and blur the distinction between the indoors and outdoors. Just like Lohmann does with seaweed, Blaisse makes resources accessible to the public in a sustainable way.

Petra Blaisse | Solar Curtain
Petra Blaisse | Solar Curtain | © Design Display. Photo: Noortje Knulst
But even for seasoned designers, these new developments require a long-winded process. The complexity of the task can be seen in the fact that Petra Blaisse began her first works in 2002, but even in 2017, she is still working on producing a solar curtain suitable for everyday use. After years of extensive research, though, she is finally making considerable headway.

Material and method

This journey in pursuit of a goal and the knowledge gained in the process is precisely what research is about. Julia Lohmann has made this the subject of her doctoral thesis, an applications-oriented research project she is currently completing with the support of the British Arts and Humanities Research Council. As she points out, the focus of this work is specifically on seaweed as “material and methodˮ, on the one hand. On the other, it explores how to further broaden the knowledge developed through a collective and experimental approach, and how to expand the network set up in the development process. “These findings are often more important than the actual object that emerges once the process is completed.ˮ Research, in fact, doesn’t guarantee a product at the end.

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