With its expanding and undefined frontiers, the realm of conceptual design may feel nebulous, but the German practitioner Johanna Seelemann was drawn to the opportunity to approach design in an analytical manner.

‘In a world that’s full of objects, I always had a hard time justifying simply redesigning an existing object typology – what would I add? Especially since most “design solutions” were answering artificially created problems,’ explains the designer, who will be showing her latest work, exploring rustic materials such as loam and straw, at Dutch Invertuals’ exhibition ‘Objects for a New Kind of Society’ during Dutch Design Week (16 – 24 October 2021). 

‘Having started my studies in Germany and always having conceptually approached my projects, I was frustrated not knowing how to situate my ideas within classical product design.’

Portrait of Johanna Seelemann
Johanna Seelemann

It was only upon visiting Design Academy Eindhoven in 2014 that Seelemann was exposed to how differently the design discipline could be defined. The search for new possibilities ultimately led her to participate in an exchange programme at Iceland University of the Arts, where she completed her bachelor’s degree, before heading back to Eindhoven to study for a master’s in contextual design. The experience of being in foreign territory was also formative in forging her design path. 

‘The change of scenery from my German cultural context to living and working in Iceland was a key event for me as a designer. [There was a] shift from the apparent abundance of everything to a scarcity in resources, where nearly everything mundane needed to be imported across long distances.

‘The perception of nature was also overwhelming and the viewpoint shifted from aiming to protect nature to protecting yourself from extreme and harsh conditions, [while holding] respect for huge natural forces such as strong winds, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, and land that cannot possibly be used. My understanding of locality, available material, and production possibilities completely changed, which changed my way of looking at design.’

Prototype design on textured background for Hortalanus project by Johanna Seelemann
Prototype for an upcoming collection of objects made from site-specific resources, like staw, corn, and loam, exploring healthy ways of consuming, to be presented during Dutch Design Week (16 – 24 October 2021)

Johanna Seelemann: questioning food mileage

It comes as no surprise that since then, Seelemann has focused her research on exposing the hidden systems and networks that exist behind globally traded goods, such as aluminium cans and bananas. One project, Banana Story, created in collaboration with Björn Steinar Blumenstein, charts the complex journey of spotless bananas from Ecuador to Iceland and shows how the ubiquitous fruit is handled by as many as 33 pairs of hands before arriving on supermarket shelves.

Accompanied by a passport and illustrated labels that document the fruit’s mileage and ports of call, the project encourages consumers to rethink the true value of food to discourage food waste.

Banana passport with stamps to show its journey
Cargo installtion by Johanna Seelemann, with fruit on an aluminium structure
Top, Banana Passport, from the Banana Story project and, above, Cargo, are part of investigations into global trade and transportation by Johanna Seelemann and Björn Steinar Blumenstein. Courtesy Johanna Seelemann and Björn Steinar Blumenstein

Seelemann’s inquiries also led her to study and work with Formafantasma, whose founders Simone Farresin and Andrea Trimarchi, department heads of the GEO-Design master’s programme at Design Academy Eindhoven, are impressed by her talent. So much so, the duo have named Seelmann among 25 creative leaders of the future in Wallpaper’s 25th Anniversary Issue ‘5x5’ project.

‘I enjoy questioning the seemingly most mundane objects and materials surrounding me and their relation to the place I’m in, exploring their origin, history, contemporary contexts, and journey,’ says Seelemann of her work. ‘This investigation often offers fascinations with one idea, which are based on concepts such as substitution, aesthetic evolution, adaptation, transformation, resilience, or nature-centered technologies,’ she states.

‘As much as I am exploring a theme and might want to point out certain issues, the core aim of my project usually remains an optimistic suggestion, a proposition, a counter-proposal, or an alternative possible scenario to the one I’ve explored.’

Installation of clay structures in warehouse-style space by Johanna Seelemann
Terra Incognita rethinks industrial clay and proposes objects that can be transformed and adapted through their life. Design collaboration with Daniel Rauch. Courtesy Johanna Seelemann