A beastly business: furniture design with a difference

Lights made from sheeps' stomachs, cowhide benches 'named' after the cows that died to make them - furniture designer Julia Lohmann wants to bring us face to face with the origins of the animal products we use
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The Independent Online

Looking at a display of Julia Lohmann's dramatic lighting design, most people were taken aback by its beauty. The glow from the sparsely veined, almost papyrus-like balls was warm and diffuse. Many could imagine having one suspended over their stylish urban dinner-tables - until they read the accompanying caption. The name, Flock, was a clue; Lohmann's lighting was made from 50 preserved sheep stomachs.

Call it a new take on recycling, or, for some, just plain unpleasant, but since she graduated in 2004 from the Royal College of Art - where she studied product design and picked up a prestigious D&AD student award for product development, plus an IF award for ecology and product design - Lohmann's show-stopping creations have been gaining a reputation for challenging ideas about our relationship to animals and to the products they yield.

Her stance is neither utopian nor militant; she wears leather and eats meat. Lohmann's journey began with a spell working on a sheep farm in Iceland, where she experienced what she considered to be a more direct relationship between animal and supper, or animal and clothing. It got her thinking about, as she puts it, "wanting to use those animal materials that are now typically thrown away. The idea of recycling those animal parts that are normally discarded is very important to me - but to use them in a way that triggers perhaps conflicting emotions."

Back home in London, she learned how to use preserving solutions and, much to the local butcher's surprise, bought several weeks' worth of sheep stomachs. Colleagues at the RCA were equally surprised, soon insisting that she abandon the sculpture rooms because of the smell. Once preserved, and the whiff eliminated, adding a light source allowed the qualities of the stomachs to be illuminated from within.

"I wanted people to think of the object as beautiful first, and not experience any kind of repulsion until they'd discovered what it was made from," says Lohmann, 28. "Once tricked into that, I wanted them to think about why they now found it disgusting; to consider, if they wear an animal's skin or eat its muscles, how illogical that is."

Animals had featured in Lohmann's work before. For her final project at Surrey Institute, where she studied graphic design before moving on to the RCA, she used maggots squirming through non-toxic, eco-friendly ink to draw patterns on paper. In an unmonitored section of Tate Modern, passers-by were asked to select a maggot, put a question to it and see it "write" a reply.

"Initially people didn't want to get close to the table," Lohmann says. "By the time they left, even a maggot was an animal they could in some way relate to. Some even started naming them. The point was just to show that so much of our classification of animals depends on context: a rabbit is a family pet, vermin or a delicacy. Similarly, people think it's terrible if animals are used in art - by the likes of Damien Hirst, for example. But they accept it if animals are killed to produce consumer goods."

Lohmann also co-runs Studio Bec, a graphic design agency specialising in work for charities and sustainable businesses. She considers it her role to investigate the potential of all materials with a view to minimising waste and ensuring maximum longevity, and to use all materials responsibly. She considers it important that, in a society in which packaging and, with an Orwellian twist, even language is used to disguise the true origins of animal-based products, consumers also take some responsibility for their role in an animal's wellbeing and eventual death.

"For some, that would make it hard to wear the leather, or eat the meat. It's hard in a market designed to make us less and less aware of the connection; chicken doesn't look like chicken any more but comes in dinosaur-shaped lumps," Lohmann says. "Whether or not to go vegetarian is a personal choice - but it's a choice everyone should make actively. Our relationship with animals is not a simple yes or no debate. Acknowledging the origins of a product is a first step towards making more ethical choices about what we consume."

Her later work has aimed to re-establish this connection. Since designing such items, she says, she has become obsessive about knowing the origins of the meat she eats, for instance.

Ruminant Bloom is another light, this time made from the second of a cow's four stomachs, its natural honeycomb properties making for striking lace-like effects when lit from within ("cow's stomach is a fantastic, strong material," Lohmann says). These are made to order, though Lohmann is looking into commercial manufacture.

Next week, she will be one of 30 designers contributing pieces to the Super Design Market, part of London Design Festival. Lohmann's offering? Tiny porcelain mice modelled on the packs of frozen mice bought as snake food. "They're a bridge between the Walt Disney-ish idea of mice and the idea of mice as vermin," says the designer.

Perhaps the most thought-provoking of Lohmann's pieces is her Cow Bench series, one of which will be on show at the festival's In Production exhibition. These are frames built from Recon, a reconstituted foam, to mimic the positioning of ribs and spine in the torso of a cow (they come with head and legs removed, because that is the first process cows undergo after slaughtering). These frames are then covered with the whole hide of a single cow, positioned spine by spine on the bench exactly as it was on the animal.

In contrast to luxury car manufacturers, who make a point of buying leather from herds that have been kept away from barbed wire fences and bad weather, each bench shows the marks and scars picked up by the living cow.

The benches are made in conjunction with Alma Leather, an interiors company. They cost about £9,000, and 15 have been sold so far. Each of them is given an individual name: Elsa, Carla, Rosel, Eileen...

"People find the benches very direct," Lohmann explains. "They have a more immediate reaction because each bench can easily be read as an animal. But at the same time it's also obviously very dead. It's not the kind of piece many people are going to buy, but I hope that when people see one and go home, they think anew about their leather sofa, or just about their shoes. Each bench is a kind of memento mori to the cow who died to make it. As with any of my products, I don't want to force home any message. The products stand alone. But I'm glad the message is there."

Julia Lohmann will be at the Super Design Market, Old Truman Brewery, 91 Brick Lane, London E1 on Saturday and Sunday; see www.londondesignfestival.com and www.julialohmann.co.uk for more information

Are there dead animals in your home?

Do you think that because you don't wear leather and don't eat meat, you avoid animal products? Think again; animal by-products are everywhere. Here's a tiny sample.

Brushes Animal hair can be used in paint, bath and shaving brushes, and even in toothbrushes.

Cheese Many cheeses use rennet, an enzyme taken from the stomachs of slaughtered calves and used as a coagulation agent.

Confectionery The shiny glaze on many sweets and lollies is achieved by using a glazing agent called shellac, obtained from a resin produced by the lac insect.

Cosmetics These contain many animal products. Crushed fish-scales, for example, can be used to create a shimmering effect.

Drugs Capsules used to dispense medicines are now often made of plastic, but some are still made of gelatin, an emulsifying agent made by boiling animal tissues.

Food colourings Cochineal is a common reddish colouring in food products ("colour 120" on the label). It is made from the dried scales of female insects.

Explosives Fireworks often use glycerine, an oily liquid, in their production. It is often derived from animal fats.

Fragrances Real musk (as opposed to the synthesised variety) is extracted from the genitals of musk deer, musk rats, beavers and civet by what campaigners say is a cruel, painful process.

Wines and beers Most use isinglass, a fining agent derived from the swim bladders of some fish.

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