Investigative Living: In her work, the American artist Andrea Zittel explores how to live beyond the usual patterns. As an heir to the reform movement, she aims for a self-determined and sustainable way of life.
By Thomas Wagner
The formlessness of our time takes its toll. Where all tradition has become obsolete, how is anyone supposed to live and work, how to sit, cook, eat, sleep, dream? In other words, how can one settle into everyday life when one can no longer rely on any obligations? Can living succeed under such conditions? Conversely, does the way we live determine the structure and order of our lives and thoughts? Do the spaces and housings in which someone resides influence their practices and ways of acting? Is adaptation through consumption of some industrially prefabricated lifestyle the only option? Or are there alternatives?
If you want to distance yourself from the usual and reflect on the fixed parameters of living, you will find surprising ideas in the works of the American artist Andrea Zittel. They test whether and how forms of living beyond the mainstream can be designed, and what – aesthetically as well as ethically and socially – results from this. Zittel has just shown what this can look like in the garden and summer house of the Esters House built by Mies van der Rohe in Krefeld under the title “Planar Composition for Esters Garden House”. Here, too, the artist, who was born in Escondido, California, in 1965, deliberately crosses the borderlines between art, design and architecture.
Dialogues with the Heritage of Modernity
The Kunstmuseen Krefeld had already invited Zittel in 2019 to develop a permanent site-specific installation for the prefabricated garden house of the Deutsche Werkstätten Hellerau in the garden of Haus Esters. The first part in the interior was realised in the same year as part of the Bauhaus anniversary exhibition “Anders Wohnen”. Tables, benches, stools and a carpet for a bench were created.
In 2022, the artist has completed her work and created minimalist furniture sculptures composed of coloured panels for the garden house. Ceiling lights, bowls, trays and more stools now complete the interior. On the lawn in front of the garden house, striking bench sculptures have also been added. The five rectangular benches are intended to invite people to consciously take in different perspectives on the architecture and the garden. Since October last year, Zittel’s solo exhibition “Personal Patterns” has also been on show in the Esters House, continuing the artist’s dialogue with the heritage of modernism.
Institute of Investigative Living
Since a long time, Zittel has used a name sign formed from her initials as a label. On her website she calls “A-Z” an “institute of investigative living”: “The A-Z enterprise encompasses all aspects of everyday life. Furniture, clothing, food – they all become objects of investigation in a constant effort to better understand human nature and the social construction of needs.” The focus is on the interrelationship between material things and immaterial structures. On the one side are norms, values, social incentives and conventions, on the other personal needs, desires and habits. Zittel sees herself as a researcher and test person, questioning what seems to be taken for granted in everyday life. As an amateur and a “bricoleur” (in the sense of Claude Lévi-Strauss), she deliberately undermines the professionalism of designers and engineers. She herself described her approach in 2003 as follows: “In principle, I try to understand how we as humans relate to the world and how this relationship is reflected in the objects and environments we create.
Vehicle for Small Escapes
Zittel’s sculptures and installations play with their proximity to furnishing objects. They make references to works by Anni and Josef Albers, Margarete Schütte-Lihotzky, Richard Buckminster Fuller as well as Charles and Ray Eames, examine living models, the legacy of the Bauhaus and other modern movements. Zittel became known in this country through her “Escape Vehicle”, small aluminium capsules shown at documenta X in Kassel in 1997, which were inspired by the symbolism and aesthetics of the “mobile homes” widely used in the USA. At the “Skulptur Projekte Münster 1997” in the same year, she placed ten fibreglass islands on the city’s cannon moat. The “A-Z Deserted Islands”, irregular and white structures, were equipped with upholstered seats; the logo of the fictitious company “A-Z” with red and blue stripes on the outside referred to a serially produced but personally usable utility object for retreat and recreation.
Minimal Means, Maximum Joie De Vivre
Zittel’s artistic career does not begin with the design of furniture alone. Her stationary “living structures” also include clothing and carpets; and in mobile “living arrangements” she addresses the dream of freedom. Her modular furniture saves space in the cramped living conditions of New York and thus meets her own needs. “As a counterpart to the official lifestyle, which propagates profit-seeking and money,” Jan Avgikos noted with regard to her beginnings, “the ‘A-Z’ lifestyle stands for the purist attitude of ‘minimal means for maximum enjoyment of life’. Health and happiness, comfort and pleasure are at the core of the ‘A-Z’ cosmology. As are creativity, productivity and efficiency. Preference is given to the economic over the excessive, to uniformity over eclecticism. In some cases, conventional opposites are deliberately suspended – utopia and utilitarianism, private space and work, art and life – and new connections become conceivable. Overall, logic and order dominate the worldview from ‘A-Z’.” The order of things is not natural; it requires constant reflection (or testing) to consciously shape it. Unusual, sometimes irritating and alienating vehicles and furnishings give expression to the desire to leave a standardised lifestyle behind. The more freedom that emerges, the more self-determined one can live, in a pleasant environment that, according to Avgikos, “offers protection from the brutal reality and alienating effect of the mass cultural spectacle of consumption”.
According to Zittel, those who want to escape the spectacle of consumption have to redesign the daily processes of their own lives. It is a matter of restructuring them in such a way that they can form a counterweight to the current living conditions (increased mobilisation, platform and network capitalism). “With the ‘Living Unit’,” says the artist, “I wanted to reconfigure the restrictions in my life so that they became a luxury. Criteria such as lack of space and great clutter in my environment were transformed into elegance and security through the ‘Living Unit’.” This was followed by the ‘Comfort Units’, which placed the bed at the centre of the design and could be extended by ‘Service Units’ such as a desk or toilet table. The commercial success of the modular units led to the founding of “A-Z Administrative Services”, which took care of marketing.
A-Z West, Joshua Tree
Around the year 2000, Zittel began to develop a counterpart to the existing “A-Z East” in New York in California. The move back to the place of her childhood marked a new phase in her life and work and led to the expansion of a holistic concept of life. She bought five acres (about two hectares) of land in the Mojave Desert, to which another 35 acres were added in 2011. The area, which is about a two-and-a-half-hour drive southeast of Los Angeles, is located on the edge of the roadside village of Joshua Tree and borders directly on Joshua Tree National Park. With “A-Z West” Zittel has continued the concept of the “showroom / testing ground” under changed conditions and has furnished both her own house (a renovated homestead cabin) and the surrounding area (in collaboration with artist friends and collaborators) with artefacts from her own production. In 2003, to provide accommodation for fellow artists, friends and visitors, she developed the “Wagon Stations”, compact, modular and customisable living units made from a steel frame clad in wooden panels with a bed, storage and a camping cooker.
Beyond the Usual Routines
From the perspective of professional designers, it is surprising how consistently Zittel succeeds in testing ingrained (living) routines and showing how they can be conceptually escaped. Paradoxically, according to one insight, freedoms arise from limitations and reductions. What is decisive here is not so much the singular design, even if it is in it that Zittel’s concept first becomes visible. As a late heiress of the reform movement, her ambition goes further and aims higher: what she designs is (similar to what Donald Judd exemplified, especially in Marfa, Texas) nothing less than a form of life in which art, design and behaviour (social sculpture, social and human-centred design), in which aesthetics and ethics interact. It goes with this: Not only does her art take place in the midst of life and is used like an everyday object, but in her concept the roles of private person, artist, researcher and entrepreneur intermingle. Zittel’s structures, by means of hybrids of furniture and sculpture, sound out more than the dwelling relationship of man to the world: the experience of limitation and freedom nourishes optimism, what has become can also be reshaped. Possibly for the better.
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