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Designing for a future we want to live in. This is how Johanna Seelmann sees her job as a designer. She sees the object as the medium and research as the basis. We visited the 33-year-old in her studio near Leipzig.

by Jasmin Jouhar

Johanna Seelemann | Photo: Robert Damisch

On a rainy day in early summer, the bushes and trees in the garden glow an unreal green. Add to that the rich red of a rhododendron in full bloom. When Johanna Seelmann looks out of her studio window, she sees an idyllic scene. The only sound is the siren of the nearby fire station. Here, south of Leipzig, in a garden house, quiet and secluded, the designer tackles the pressing issues of our time. Dying trades, the absurdities of global trade, our coexistence with animals and plants, the future of agriculture – these are just some of the topics the 34-year-old is tackling.

Seelmann’s design practice is based on in-depth research and an understanding of context, resulting in seductively aesthetic objects and videos, and has attracted a great deal of attention in recent times. At the Salone del Mobile in Milan in April, for example, she presented the solo exhibition “Micrographia“. The two projects on show – watering containers for city trees in need and façade elements that provide space for birds and insects – are intended for urbanised habitats and feel worlds away from the idyllic setting of the garden.

Micrographia, Solo Exhibition by Johanna Seelemann

Second Home Island

Johanna Seelmann’s second workplace is a long way from her garden studio. She regularly travels to Iceland to teach at the Reykjavik Art School. Since the designer completed an Erasmus exchange programme there in 2015, she has felt connected to the island in the North Atlantic.

She was so impressed by the conceptual and local approach to design that she decided to move to Reykjavík and complete her Bachelor’s degree there. She then went on to do a Masters at the Design Academy Eindhoven. Unlike Germany, Iceland has little manufacturing industry and many materials and products have to be imported at great expense. This was an important experience for her as a designer: “The whole society has to be very creative out of necessity. You ask around, you seek help, you work a lot with leftover materials.

Local production was a focus of her studies. In one project, for example, Seelmann and her fellow students explored the potential of the willow tree as a source of material. Willows had been planted as pioneer trees as part of the island’s reforestation efforts to prepare the soil for other plants.

Portrait of Johanna Seelemann | Photo by Julia Sang Nguyen

Communicating With Objects

However, some of the design tasks are very close to home: As part of the “Erzgebirge-Kollektiv” group, Johanna Seelemann is working with the Dregeno Seiffen cooperative to reposition traditional Erzgebirge woodwork – for example, with products other than the world-famous Christmas decorations. The aim is to open up new fields of activity and markets for the endangered craft. Small wooden objects in her studio, such as a chip-carved tree, bear witness to the collaboration. The first result was shown in May at the “Holz Land” exhibition at Schloss Hollenegg for Design in Styria: Together with her designer colleague Robert Damisch, she designed a chandelier based on typical wooden objects, the “Leuchterspinne“. The chandelier, in unusually bold shades of red and pink for Ore Mountain craftsmanship, floated almost mystically in the historic ambience of the castle, attracting the attention of visitors.

In this sense, the Leuchterspinne is a typical project for Johanna Seelemann, who sees her role as a designer in the communication with objects. “Creative thinking is something everyone can do,” she says. “Designers have the ability to translate issues in a way that makes them more accessible. It is about opening up a more emotional access to others through objects: “For me, an object is almost like evidence. Or a proposal that can be touched,” she says, explaining her fascination with the world of things. In the face of the ecological crisis, turning away from production is not an option for her. “We already produce, and there are many fascinating crafts and industries. I am more interested in how we can produce differently. What alternative methods of production are there, what forms of production are justified?

Leuchterspinne, project by Johanna Seelemann with the Ergebirge-Kollektiv

The Allure of Materials

Johanna Seelemann is a self-proclaimed perfectionist. Her objects, videos, and presentations are characterized by strong aesthetics and clear visual language. The allure of materials, textures, and surfaces plays an important role. “I continue until a project reaches a point where I am aesthetically very pleased with it,” she says with a laugh. Utilizing aesthetics methodically, as a kind of bait, is something she learned during her work for the design duo Formafantasma, where she was involved in various roles in the research and exhibition projects “Ore Streams” and “Cambio”. “Aesthetics are the first layer of a project to spark interest,” says Seelemann. “Below that, there are several more layers that are gradually revealed as you engage with it longer.”

“Harvest crown”, design by Johanna Seelemann for the Farm Project

European and East German

Although her studio is neat and tidy and the items are displayed as if in a showroom, she is keen to collaborate with other designers and experts from different fields. She is also part of the “Farm Project” collective, which will produce new works for the “Salone di Aschau” design festival in Chiemgau in mid-July. Working outside the city, in the countryside, in new contexts, without forgetting where you come from: after several extended stays abroad, Seelmann feels like a European. And, she adds after a short pause, sometimes also as an East German. Born on the very last day of the GDR, she sometimes wonders if there is an East German heritage in her way of working: “Repair and adaptability were much more natural in the East than in the consumer culture of the West,” she says. This brings her full circle to the Icelandic culture that has influenced her as a designer.

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