While most of her colleagues occupy more ordinary studios, Julia Lohmann's London workplace resembles a lab for animal experiments
‘This is Else,' says German designer Julia Lohmann as she welcomes me into her home in a leafy North London neighbourhood. ‘She's the fourth cow I made. You can sit on her.' I promptly cross the room to stroke Else. ‘The third one was Belinda,' continues Lohmann. ‘Then I made Else, Karla, Radia . . . Oh! And Raoul – he was the only male.' Together they make up the first herd of cowhide benches that Lohmann created after being ‘discovered' by renowned UK design critic Alice Rawsthorn and Emily Campbell, head of design and architecture at the British Council, both of whom attended the Royal College of Art graduation show in June 2004. They immediately selected her to show at an exhibition at London's Design Museum later that year. For that occasion Lohmann made Cow Bench No. 2: Rosel.
Lohmann was born 30 years ago in Hildesheim, a German town of ‘100,000 inhabitants, near Hanover'. Although she didn't own horses, she grew up around them and was always riding or playing in the woods that surrounded her house. Lohmann is tall and strong-looking, with a forthright, engaging manner. She shows me all the details that make Else special. ‘The thing with good-quality leather is that you see every scar.' She points to the wrinkles on Else's neck, the insect bites on her withers. But what Lohmann really likes about Else is a long scar that runs from the cow's shoulders to her ribs, a mark that may have been caused as the animal walked through a stable door. The clever – or possibly disturbing and ironic (given that the animals are long dead) – aspect of the Cow Benches is how alive they become under Lohmann's touch. She says they all have names, passports and different shapes; and when she sold Belinda to Li Edelkoort, former chairperson of Design Academy Eindhoven, her housemate was heartbroken. ‘He was in love with that cow,' Lohmann smiles.
We are in Lohmann's house because she and three other designers – including her husband of one year, Gero Grundmann, who often collaborates with her on projects – are in the process of moving studios. Yet enough of her work is on show here to get an idea of what drives this young designer, and what intrigues her. On the desk are some of her famous Stomach Lamps, lighting objects made from the stomach linings of cows (she also uses sheep stomachs). Light passing through the honeycombed texture of the material is warm and beautifully mottled. ‘I buy the stomachs from the butcher, take all the meat off them – the muscle – so just the membrane is left,' says Lohmann without a hint of squeamishness. Does it smell? Yes. Do I know what tripe smells like, Lohmann asks. As it happens, I don't, but Lohmann does. Though she eats meat only when she knows how the beast has been reared, she is a firm believer in ‘eating every part of the animal'.
Later, when Grundmann is in the room, we discuss Alessandro Mendini's letter to Icon Magazine, written in response to The Lasting Void, a Lohmann piece published in the September 2007 issue. The Lasting Void is based on a mould of the inside of a calf's carcass after it has been slaughtered and its internal organs have been removed. The resulting object is a shiny and impossibly sinuous and seductive resin-and-fibreglass volume that represents a sort of ‘negative space', which exists only for the ‘transitional period in which we turn animal into a product', Lohmann has written. Mendini was saddened and disgusted by what he saw as the ‘immortalising of a dead animal's last breath, in order sadistically to propose it as an item for everyday use... The idea is cynical and pointless, it is simply turning the torture of a dead body into entertainment.'
It just so happened that the calf that gave shape to The Lasting Void died of natural causes and was waiting to be incinerated when Lohmann acquired it. Over and above this fact, however, Lohmann says Mendini ‘misunderstood the way it was made'. She believes he thought she ‘did it just for the form, the shape', whereas she is adamant that beauty was a minor consideration. She was far more interested in looking at some of the ‘disgusting things we do in order to have everyday things'. And, on a more artistic and abstract level, she wanted to look at ‘what design is and what it could be' and to address the ‘responsibility you have as an artist, designer and consumer towards your materials'.
Soft-spoken Grundmann steps in at this point and says: ‘Trades have become compartmentalized. The meat we eat is so removed from the animal.' And Grundmann should know; he comes from a family of foresters and hunters and loves to hunt and to cook. He shows me the perfectly clean and luminous skull of a small deer he (legally) hunted and cooked a few months ago. He also says he has hunted and prepared grey squirrel, which both he and Lohmann say ‘tastes amazing'. ‘I don't think either of us believes in having just a little part of the experience,' Grundmann says. In fact, they both think it is far more contradictory to eat animals one refuses to kill than to kill and eat the spoils of the hunt. They also believe that living in denial about why and how animals are killed doesn't actually ‘change anything'.
In any case, Lohmann was delighted to have what she calls this ‘discourse' with Mendini and to have elicited such a strong and shocked response. She and Mendini are now on good terms, and she says he now understands her way of thinking. They had an ‘emotional' reunion when he attended her exhibition in Milan last April and ‘shook her hand with both of his'. After the meeting he sent her a small limited-edition bronze chair that he made in the early '80s.
Mendini will have noted that at the Milan furniture fair this year Lohmann veered off the animal track to a degree, but not very far. She set up an impromptu kelp laboratory at the Nilufar design gallery in the city's glamorous Via della Spiga, where she made a series of eye-catching and remarkably resilient nesting lamps and chandeliers from strips of seaweed that she had sourced in Ireland and Japan. She ended up having to spend her days talking to assorted members of the press, as well as interested visitors and friends, and working nights to make up for lost time. A film on the internet reveals how tired and drained she looked by the end of the fair. She laughs out loud as we watch it. As with all the projects she embarks on, Lohmann's Seaweed Lamps emerge from the deeply held reasons that nderpin her work. Seaweed is a natural filter, she tells me, ‘planted around fish farms it cleans the water by feeding off fish faeces'.
Whether her starting point is leather, stomach linings or empty carcasses, what it boils down to is Lohmann's unabated interest in finding something in a material that no-one else has discovered. ‘I find it far more challenging than a material that starts out being beautiful and precious.' With that comment, she puts one of her Snow Whites in my hand, a porcelain mould of a dead baby mouse that will be made into a brooch. Lohmann buys the frozen mice in pet shops, where they are sold as snake food. She thinks the mice are ‘shock frozen', because they are huddled together in bags, still blind, nesting. The first casts of the mice are made out of plaster and have real whiskers and hair attached. I appear visibly shocked, and Lohmann says, ‘It's not that I have no emotions.. ' But that's not what I'm thinking. I'm thinking that Lohmann, who seems pretty shocked herself, may be one of the most fervent animal and nature lovers I have ever met. As well as one of the most imaginative, passionate and dedicated young designers I've talked to in a long while.
Appeared in Frame Magazine Issue 64, Sep/Oct 2008