Zittel’s first projects developed out of her small apartment in Brooklyn, New York, and reflected the craft-based, “do it yourself” ethos of the 1990s. She lived within the carefully ordered confines of her A-Z Management and Maintenance Unit (1992)—a seven-by-nine foot “living unit” that offered space for the basic necessities of eating, sleeping, storing and cleaning—to explore how design and its accompanying ideologies could turn a seeming constraint into a liberating experience. Other early experiments involved living without running water for a year, spending extended periods without access to measured time, and sewing spare “uniforms,” of which she only wore one per season. Ongoing over twenty years later, the A-Z Uniform series has expanded into an array of designs in natural fibers that perfectly encapsulate Zittel’s impulse to simplify, but also critique, our perceived need for objects, variety and individuality.
In 2000, Zittel moved cross-country to establish A-Z West, her home and testing ground where physical works are created and lived with as an experiment in “investigative living.” Situated in the desert approximately two hours east of Los Angeles, A-Z West has come to encompass an eighty-acre site designed by the artist that includes a main house, personal and communal studios, homestead cabins, Wagon Station Encampments (small trailers with well-appointed interiors for rest), and site-specific sculptures. From this fecund compound, Zittel has produced paintings on wood featuring colorful geometric abstractions and views of A-Z West; sculptural Planar Configurations that create modest living spaces out of parallel and perpendicular panels, in muted primary tones and overlaid with weavings and textiles; and suites of precise watercolors echoing the planes of her three-dimensional structures. These and other projects continue to question our materialist impulses, while also savoring the beauty and orderliness of well-designed forms.
Outdoor sculptural installations have also long been part of Zittel’s practice. The A-Z Deserted Islands (1997) are mounded raft-like structures designed as self-contained floating spaces. Her Planar Pavilions, networks of platforms and walls that have been installed internationally over the last decade, welcome public use and interaction but similarly carve out and delineate physical space. Here again, Zittel emphasizes that limitations can often make us more creative, despite our continual desire for freedom and independence.
Across her many bodies of work, Zittel draws the viewer in with something seemingly familiar—a bed, a rug, a smock or dress, a minimalist shelving unit—but then presents challenging questions about the systems that generate these feelings of recognition and comfort. Her objects provoke us in their constant questioning of what we can live with and without, urging us to consider what truly generates value and meaning in our lives. Though she is drawn to concepts of economy, efficiency, and better living—lenses through which her work is often viewed—her ultimate goal is to understand our psychological relationships to these ideals rather than dictate a “correct” way to live.