Partnering with Nature – reflections from a designer and researcher

Essay by Julia Lohmann
»When we say “we” - what do we mean then?«, asks the designer Julia Lohmann.

Julia Lohman (1977) is a designer with an interdisciplinary focus. She was born in Germany and today works in Finland. In a series of works, she has examined the value pattern that underlies our relationship with the animal and plant world. Julia Lohmann sees design as a method of engagement.
Design can help us find solutions to some of the
crises we are heading towards. When the World
Economic Forum held its annual conference in Davos
2020, she organized a high-profile workshop and
exhibition with seaweed in focus.

The essay is written in collaboration with Gero


»What times are these, when a conversation about trees is almost a crime, because it holds a silence about so many horrors.«

When Bertold Brecht wrote his poem ‘For those who follow in our wake’ in exile in Denmark during the Second World War, nature still stood for a realm one could physically and mentally escape to from human warfare and the holocaust. Today, the survival of the Earth’s ecosystem as we know it – the system that enabled us to evolve to a point where we have come to see ourselves as separate and above nature – is the elephant in the room. We understand that today’s conflicts and inequality are linked to an accelerating climate crisis and that the Covid-19 pandemic is just a hiccup before the global cytokine storm we are inducing in the Earth’s biota.

Whenever we discuss politics and humanity, economy and technology without including the impact of our actions on the non human web of life that sustains us, we promote inaction and denial. Whenever we choose populism over science, we are accelerating annihilation. Consequently, when The Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum invited me to be one of the artists
and designers exhibiting in Partnering with Nature at the 50th Annual Meeting of the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos-Klosters, Switzerland, I jumped at the opportunity.

Partnering with Nature showcased the work of artists and designers who collaborate with nature. And the WEF provided the perfect platform to raise concerns around the world’s ecosystems, in my case the ocean. It is the reason why I work with seaweed as a material for making and have founded the Department of Seaweed, a trans-disciplinary community of practice for the development of seaweed as a sustainable material for making.

To me, being in nature feels like a homecoming. Nature embraces me and makes me happy, though at the same time I feel alien, intrusively entering a complex ecosystem that would work very well without me. It is such a space for reflection – an empathic experience bringing out these dichotomies – that I wanted to try to bring to Davos.

The Department of Seaweed's contribution to the WEF consisted of the Hidaka Ohmu, a pavilion made from algae stretched over a rattan and wood frame – designed as a place to rest – as well as workshop in which participants could make brooches from kelp. The pavilion brought a nature-like space into that of the conference centre, its scent of the sea bringing back memories of beach walks and international cuisine. The flowing forms of the seaweed skin of the pavilion screened off the angular architecture and its colours modulated the artificial lights. The Hidaka Ohmu also connected with the building’s panoramic windows, framing the view of a snow-covered courtyard with trees outside.

I designed the workshop activities with the aim of quickly immersing delegates in hands-on, multi-sensory making. They could make their own brooches from seaweed in an easy process: People could select nesting pairs of plywood rims and press a piece of moist seaweed between the inside and outside rim. They could then trim off the excess seaweed and finish the brooch with a pin or clasp. It was ready to wear immediately, which most participants did. The activity engaged around 1000 WEF visitors and the brooches sparked conversations about seaweed across the event, for example when people were waiting in line and spotted each other’s brooches.

Through immersive making, we suspended established debating formats and hierarchies, helping delegates to connect across disciplines. The non-political sphere of the workshop allowed topics to surface slowly while people were making. Emerging conversations meandered from the technical via anecdotes of childhood seaside visits to deeper questions of materiality, futures, our eco-systemic impact and personal ethics and choices. It is an example of design acting as a connecting discipline, an empathic, reflective practice enabling communication and knowledge transfer.

As a material, algae are organisms especially well-suited to engaging our thoughts in this way. Our mind is not cluttered with algae design examples, nor have we thought much about how algae relates to ourselves. This enables us to formulate our own position unhindered by societal baggage. Ubiquitous, equally fascinating and disgusting, clearly impactful yet not fully understood: algae grounds us in seeing ourselves as just one species among many. Its role as a marine ecosystem builder, sea life nursery, water filter and carbon sink inspires us to become our better selves and invent seaweed futures in which we engage with nature in less harmful ways.

Materials – especially those bearing traces of their natural origin – also invite a maker’s thoughts to travel along timelines. The scent and slippery surface of seaweed takes us right back to the material’s habitat that we emerged from as well. Algae also pull our thoughts forward, toward their future in a manmade environment. The fact that the organisms are not yet objects – that there is no established craft around seaweed – enables us to forget what is familiar and functional and imagine instead the many future things algae might become.

Questions that arise such as why we should work with seaweed and how it relates to our world are hard to answer conclusively
from a human perspective alone. They invite a more than human frame for our endeavours. Creating communities of practice around subjects that bring together people from different disciplines can help us speculate constructively about what the future could bring. Through such design – empathic and more than human-centric – we can change situations into preferred ones (Simon, 1981).

Design is a method of engagement that can help us answer some of the crises of the 21st century if we honestly and thoroughly
answer: What is the situation we are in? What would be a preferred situation? Who should the WE be that decides what might be a preferred situation? And: If we are to grapple successfully with the global crises that we are facing now, the WE cannot only consider humans living now, since our actions have an indefinite impact for all current and future life on earth.

Designers and artists are longing to contribute, to find, frame and facilitate action towards new directions instead of exacerbating the paradigms that landed us in this mess. And yet, I feel uneasy when artists are being touted as the silver bullets of change-making, because it creates yet more passivity and complacency through hollow hope. Every one of us can and must act.

Image: Julia Lohmann: Hidaka Ohmu, 2020 From 'Partnering with Nature' at the World Economic Forum 50th Annual Meeting in Davos, Switzerland in 2020, curated by the Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian
Design Museum. Photo: World Economic Forum

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