Consider it a different kind of bioluminescence from the ocean: a striking pendant lamp fashioned from seaweed that pairs intricate patterns with organic shapes. German-born, London-based designer Julia Lohmann created it for Designs from Nowhere, an exhibition running through May 17, 2014 at the Spark Space in Reykjavík that exploring small-scale craft production in East Iceland. Lohmann’s lamp—which fits in well alongside products fashioned from driftwood, reindeer antlers, and volcanic rock—is the latest unique product that advances her campaign to champion under-utilized resources.
If you asked the Icelandic designer eight years ago if she expected to become not only a seaweed expert but a seaweed artisan, she might have given you a weird look. But ever since she had an epiphany about the plant during a trip to Hokkaido in 2007, when she was working as a designer in residence, she’s been fascinated about its potential.
"I call it the bamboo of the ocean," she says. "As a designer, I thought I would be more like a journalist, focusing on one topic then moving on to the next thing. I feel like there’s enough here to work with seaweed my entire life."
Lohmann asked her Japanese hosts if they used the seaweed for anything other than food and was surprised to learn that the brown kelp she saw in the Pacific, which can grow to a length of six meters and width of 30 centimeters, wasn’t being utilized for anything else. During subsequent research, she discovered that aborigines in Tasmania made water carriers out of dried bull kelp, and Native Americans in Canada made baskets out of the stems of seaweed, but nobody was currently adapting the material with modern craftsmanship in mind.
She’s sought to change that with proposals meant to build a body of knowledge around seaweed-based manufacturing. Lohmann has fabricated benches from the material, work that helps form the basis of her PhD research at the Royal College of Art. In 2013, she organized the Department of Seaweed at the Victoria & Albert Museum, an open studio practice and collaboration meant to develop and share ideas around working with kelp. That year, she also built Oki Naganode, a sizable installation at V&A that showcased the beauty and material quality of treated seaweed, akin to a green, translucent leather. It’s a potential renewable resource, but she cautions that it needs to be done responsibly to properly build up a manufacturing base without damaging the immediate environment.