With birch plywood, foam furniture, and balls of wool yarn, artist Andrea Zittel constructs a life in the desert of Joshua Tree, California
Claudia Steinberg -- Interior Design, 8/1/2005 12:00:00 AM
After triumphs at two installments of the "Whitney Biennial"—and the gallery sales frenzy that inevitably follows—some New York artists might buy a bigger loft. Not Andrea Zittel. Having once explored temporary seclusion by building a 54-ton concrete island off the Danish coast, she's made a much more permanent retreat from the seductions of consumerism and the distractions of art-world fame: She's rented out her Brooklyn row house and revisited an old desire to experience life in California's Mojave Desert.
When Zittel bought her unusual haven, it was just an empty brick cabin on 25 acres in Joshua Tree. Improvements so far include renovating the 700-square-foot house and adding a studio built of shipping containers. At various sites around the property, she also constructed 18 podlike trailers as shelter against the wind, sun, and sand. She uses these alternately as crash pads for friends and guest rooms for participants in her annual High Desert Test Site art event.
All her work, produced under the umbrella of her brand A-Z, is an ongoing pursuit of elegance designed around the bare necessities. She makes everything from crocheted bedspreads to a line of furniture called Raugh, pronounced "raw." Hand-carved from charcoal-gray foam, some large-scale pieces recall the boulders invading houses by Oscar Niemeyer—except that Zittel's designs are adaptable and multifunctional. They serve as desk, table, and sofa all in one. Her trailers have been shown at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and the Milwaukee Art Museum; her "uniforms," felted dresses made to be worn for months on end, helped earn her the Smithsonian's Lucelia Artist Award this year. In October, they'll appear in a Zittel retrospective at the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston.
Why the Mojave Desert?
Moving to the desert was like a homecoming for me, because it was the same lonesome landscape where, as an undergrad at San Diego State, I'd photo-graphed abandoned shacks, mines, and military installations, these amazing human projections on the desert. To me, it's always seemed like you could do anything here.
What attracted you to this cabin specifically?
It's unique. In the 1960's, someone added 300 square feet and converted it into a modernist shack with a Palm Springs feel. When I got here, though, the walls had severe water damage, so I covered them with generic birch plywood. I always use affordable materials. For the ceiling, I arranged the panels in a pattern that hides any irregularities. I call it Desert Style.
Explain your theory about camouflaging flaws.
I believe that furniture, instead of making you neater or cleaner, should accept human imperfections. With my Raugh foam furniture, things belong wherever you naturally put them—it makes your messes look good. It's also continually adaptable. You just carve the pieces to fit your needs.
Your kitchen, on the other hand, appears obsessively organized.
That was commissioned by Copia: The American Center ' for Food, Wine & the Arts in Napa, California. I built it here and shipped it to them in 2001. They returned it after the exhibition. It's designed for someone, like me, who doesn't like to cook.
How do you make lowly needlework seem progressive?
I don't like the word craft. I prefer technology, especially when it comes to something with gender-specific connotations like crochet, which I love. With my latest project, A-Z Advanced Technologies, I've been trying to find ways to make basics look sophisticated, for instance felted dresses or furniture made from paper pulp.
Are you an artist or a designer?
The impulse to make things qualifies me as a designer but, as an artist, I'm interested in how the world works and the total complexity of an issue, including its negative aspects.
How has the desert influenced your work?
Coming from New York's tiny spaces, I thought I'd build big. But my work stayed small because of the climate—often not just extreme heat but also gusty winds. One of my large, square A-Z Homestead Unit shelters got smashed against the rocks in a windstorm, so I made my 18 Wagon Station trailers small and aerodynamic. I've grown obsessed with the fact that all things deteriorate. You can't stop that, but you can make things fall apart better.
So, is this harsh place home for good?
Maybe I'll be here forever. Then again, I've always wondered about life in a van, or in the middle of a city without electricity, or in an ancient forest. Living within limits we prescribe for ourselves is more liberating than total freedom.