Lisa Zeiger: The Pathos of Things
A discussion with decorative arts historian Lisa Zeiger about beauty, aesthetics and the decoration of dwellings
"Home is a single truth always known, the drumbeat of obsession, a place built against the outside."
--Joseph Holtzman, founder and editor of NEST magazine
"To be rooted is perhaps the most important and least recognized need of the human soul."
Don't let my title or her image fool you: there is nothing of bourgeois rigidity in Lisa's personality or her career as unconventional artist, extinct feminist, passionate aesthete, and, by definition and choice, outsider. During our first zoom meeting, which Lisa spent entirely in her bed, she offered me a glimpse of her true personality, revealing some of her major soul-crushing life misfortunes. Three hours later, I felt like I was getting out of a movie taking place anywhere between Los Angeles and Venice.
Lisa's interest in decoration started in her childhood, with the urge to create a house that she would love, a home where she would belong. At first she started fabricating doll houses from cardboard. While growing up, all she saw in Los Angeles were, as she points out, "imitations of grandeur" in a dizzying variety of styles borrowed from many different nations and centuries. There were, of course, the mock-English country houses of Beverly Hills, often right next door to domains of French Provincial or Spanish Mission.
The house where Lisa grew up was a long low 1950s "contemporary" ranch house of combined grey concrete, with a completely disordered interior. She longed for a tall two or three story house with flights of stairs. From earliest childhood she hated the horizontal. Beauty was to be found upright and elsewhere:
"I imagined houses subtler and strange: not imitations, but real, which for me meant old. Americans have an ancestral memory of the place our Puritan forefathers left behind, where some of them--the Iconoclasts-- have smashed statues and ornaments, importing to the New World a mistrust of luxury: indeed, of beauty. I wanted those things back, especially beauty." (Zeiger, "Autobiography of An Anglophile", chapter from Outlaw Aria).
Popular 1960s style ranch home transformed into a "California contemporary house", source: https://www.morsecustomhomes.com/
In 1971, at thirteen, Lisa happened upon a small paperback about the Bauhaus by English design historian Gillian Naylor. The furniture revealed therein by Walter Gropius and Marcel Breuer, among others, became a lifelong obsession.
But in "real life" she was captivated and instructed by the dwellings of two avant-garde West Los Angeles families whose children she was friends with in junior high school. These unusual parents "studied things", and collected fine art objects and furniture with a pronounced, highly individual aesthetic.
The first set of parents, Alfred Ordover (1926-2001) and Sondra Ordover (1929-1988) were prescient collectors of artists who had just begun to achieve fame in the very early 1970s. One important piece in their Westwood house was called "Mirror Mirror, Table Table", a pair of wooden cubes, each with a matching picture frame hanging above it, by the Conceptual artist Richard Artschwager (1923-2013). Artschwager was fascinated by furniture forms. "Mirror Mirror" was painted in very pale pink and yellow. Lisa first saw it in the Ordover house in 1971: then again in 1976, this time at the Whitney Museum in Manhattan.
Richard Artschwager, Mirror/Mirror-Table/Table, 1964. Source: Arts & Photography, February 2013, http://artandphotography-uog.blogspot.com/2013/02/
Another enigmatic work suspended from the Ordover's winding staircase was a gigantic grey felt suit by German artist Joseph Beuys, made in 1970 as a numbered edition of one hundred identical suits.
Joseph Beuys, Felt Suit, 1970. Source: Sartle, Rogue Art History, https://www.sartle.com/artwork/felt-suit-joseph-beuys
Other art in Alfred's collection which Lisa saw for the first time included four very early Ellsworth Kelly paintings, all of them highly colored and impastoed, one of them figurative--in contrast to the sleek black and white curved abstractions Kelly is now most famous for. There was also a crushed automobile sculpture by John Chamberlain.
Crushed car parts by John Chamberlain. Source: My Modern Met, https://mymodernmet.com/john-chamberlain-choices-guggenheim-retrospective/
Sondra Ordover enriched Alfred's important art collection with a vast, variegated array of Art Deco furniture and vessels of the finest quality, much of it French. Together they created an atmosphere of striking yet harmonious contrasts.
A second Westwood family Lisa remained close to for ensuing decades was that of the late chef, international restaurant consultant and outrageous wit Ruth Leserman (d. 2011) and her husband Paul, today an attorney and in the 1970s an agent for screenwriters. Both daughters, Maggie and Barbara (the latter sadly deceased in the early 1980s), were delightful friends. Their house was an eclectic ensemble of Art Nouveau and other late 19th century French furniture, with contemporary prints by Ed Ruscha and Robert Indiana. In 1972, with typical disregard for convention, the Lesermans decamped for several years to London, renting the house of legendary English ballerina Margot Fonteyn in Rutland Gardens Mews, Knightsbridge.
In London, Lisa, Barbara and Maggie combed the flea markets of Chelsea and King's Road which at that time were hoards of Art Nouveau jewelry, Galle vases, and other fin de siecle artifacts. The highlight of Lisa's sojourn with the Lesermans was a tea party hosted by David Hockney, whom they knew well, at his extraordinary flat and studio in Notting Hill. This turned out to be a moment of realization for the 15-year-old Lisa: the sudden discovery of a world she belonged in.
"Hockney, the first artist I'd ever met, lived in this place amid visual delights and surprises. There were the famous cut-out wooden trees made by Mo McDermott: vast sheets of undulating silver Mylar on the walls like funhouse mirrors: and a streamlined shortwave radio console on legs, enameled in cream, with two black orbs studded with numbers." (Zeiger: "A Friend of the Friends of Dorothy", chapter from Outlaw Aria).
David Hockney's studio in Notting Hill, 1969 source: https://www.houseandgarden.co.uk/article/look-inside-david-hockneys-1969-studio
After three years as a hippie, teenaged feminist and devotee of Anais Nin, Kenneth Anger, and Laura Nyro--with a similarly outre circle of friends at University High School in Brentwood-- Lisa fled a semester early, in March 1975, to the University of California at Berkeley. There she studied English literature and criticism. In 1976, simultaneously in love with two art student friends--San Franciscans with a beatnik aura--Lisa followed them to Manhattan, trading her purple Bedouin gowns for little black dresses from Henri Bendel.
At Barnard College, Lisa's passion was for English, French and German literature, also taking classes at Columbia University. At that time Barnard was the sole female counterpart of Columbia, until the latter began admitting women in 1983. Her professors at Columbia included the late Palestinian activist Edward Said, along with Naomi Schor, a remarkable scholar of the 19th century French novel and writings of Freud.
Then, in 1982, Lisa took a surprising step--a detour--culminating in a degree from Columbia Law School in 1985. The law was a hopelessly incongruous career for this hippie at heart. Lisa skipped classes, reading all of Iris Murdoch and Muriel Spark at home in bed: or hiding in Columbia's Avery Art Library poring over back issues of The World of Interiors. She remembers nothing of the law, but credits her law studies with providing a perfectionist sense of structure and precision in writing.
American-born, with absolutely no attachment to her homeland, Lisa would find her aesthetic inspiration in the old and meaningful, and for her that meant the European continent, where she lived for seven years beginning in 1987.
“I’d spent my whole childhood wishing America and especially Los Angeles would go away. Now [that I was living in Europe] they had dropped into the sea. The memories I’d built up on both coasts were trifles compared to the deep importance to me of Europe—known first from books, then from shorter travels—which enveloped me in its ancient atmosphere of thought at last." (Zeiger, “The Cold Angel,” chapter from Outlaw Aria).
In London she embarked on the study of the history of decorative arts at Sotheby's Education, followed by another year of 19th and 20th century decorative arts at the University of Glasgow, taught by Professional Juliet Kinchin, now a Curator of Architecture and Design at MoMA. In 1990, Lisa obtained a U.K. writer's visa, working as a freelance art critic between London, Glasgow and Cologne, a regular contributor to the British magazines, Apollo and The Art Newspaper.
"At Sotheby's I encountered "object-based teaching", channeled through professors recruited from among seasoned curators at the Victoria & Albert Museum, who cherished the nineteenth century installations--especially thousands of ceramics in stately mahogany cases--of the world's largest museum of decorative arts and design as still--relevant relics of the Museum's earliest raison d’être.
Founded in 1852 and originally called The Museum of Manufactures, the first Director, Henry Cole, sought to provide applied art students with profuse exemplars of good design, more discerning than the indiscriminate mix of good, bad and ugly which had filled the Crystal Palace during the Great Exhibition of 1851.”
“Sotheby’s instructors were unafraid to venerate objects for their own sake along with the genius--now a politically unfashionable concept--of artists and craftsmen who had created them." (Zeiger, “Autobiography of an Anglophile”, chapter of Outlaw Aria).
It was while Lisa was living in Glasgow in the late 1980s in the early 1990s, that her friend Elspeth Thompson, the late, noteworthy garden journalist, would write about Lisa's two-bedroom flat in the West End of Glasgow, a collaboration with the American artist and designer John Paul Philippe. Precious support--and restraint in decoration!-- was provided by John-Paul, who was living with his partner, art historian and activist Simon Watney, in Camden Town, London at the time. Elspeth's text "Celtic Ranger" was published in April 1993 in The World of Interiors, with stunning photos by Polly Farquharson.
Photo of Lisa's Glasgow apartment featured in the text "Celtic Ranger", World of Interiors, April 1993. Photo: Courtesy of Polly Farquharson
This top-floor attic flat in an early Victorian crescent of limestone houses was composed of four rooms that mirrored one another--two each on opposite sides of a wonderful stair landing with a gabled skylight. The architecture and interior were the embodiment of beauty and authenticity as defined by Lisa. When I asked her how she defines beauty, her response was: "Beauty is both perfection and peculiarity. And there needs to be something old." Indeed, the hors du temps Glasgow dwelling corresponds perfectly to this statement!
The way we relate to objects is not just a spontaneous instant interest or result of self-perceived good taste. How we discern their inherent meaning and relation to the space they inhabit is for an expert decorator the result of systematic study of all the art forms which surround us.
As Elspeth Thomson describes: "Nothing has been left to chance--even the seemingly random stack of black-and-white prints, old photographs and newspaper cuttings on the kitchen mantelpiece (and there's an Eric Gill among them) have been chosen "because they look so utterly beautiful against the grey plaster walls". (Thomson, E., 1993: "Celtic Ranger", The World of Interiors, April issue)
Photo of Lisa's Glasgow apartment featured in the text "Celtic Ranger", World of Interiors, April 1993. Photo: Courtesy of Polly Farquharson
The Glasgow apartment portrayed in the decorative sense elements of the Arts and Crafts movement, the japonisme of the Aesthetes, and Charles Rennie Mackintosh's "Glasgow style". Spaces were furnished in meticulous detail: the curtains in the sitting room, for example, were dyed twice just to get the perfect nuance of slightly greenish yellow. Elements of Arts & Crafts are recognizable in the wooden oak table. On both sides of the wall between the fireplace we can spot the refined, hand-printed wallpaper of Peggy Angus, the British painter and designer, and close colleague of Eric Ravilious. The barrel chairs were inspired by a painting of Edward Burne-Jones, and found at The Antique Trader in Islington.
Lisa’s second publically featured dwelling, in 1998 in Nest magazine, was the studio apartment on West 84th Street on the Upper West Side of Manhattan which she clung to for 27 years. An interesting fact about this 350 square foot room was that Lisa shipped the tall dark wooden fireplace all the way from a school in Scotland! In this small nest, objects speak a million words. I find in these images a revelation of beauty in the sense of Kant's philosophy of aesthetics, which views beauty or sublimity as not necessarily properties of objects, but rather ways in which we respond to them.
Lisa's studio on West 84th Street, New York, featured in Nest magazine. Text written by Lisa Zeiger: "Hello to All That", Photo: Courtesy of Nest, Adam Bartos 1998.
About this apartment Lisa wrote: "Like Isabel Archer, with incredulous terror I've taken the measure of my dwelling, paced out the diameter of the blasted circle in which I walk. As women and typographers now, sometimes an inch makes all the difference. I know the dimensions of my den down to its last pica." (Zeiger, L. ``Hello To All That", Nest, 1998)
Photo: Courtesy of Nest,Adam Bartos, 1998, Lisa Zeiger's studio: above the fireplace an inscription from I Corinthians 15:43 borrowed from a funeral bier designed by the early Victorian architect, A.W.N. Pugin, with the calligraphy done in Greek by typography historian Paul Shaw: “It is sown in weakness; it is raised in power.”
In 1997, Lisa became Decorative Arts Editor of a brand-new magazine Nest: A Quarterly of Interiors. She stayed for three years. The mission of this magazine--both historical and avant garde--was to reveal and revel in the golden extravagance of interior design. Founder Joseph Holtzman sought to create something completely new, even when exploring ancient interiors. For Lisa, it was a once in a lifetime experience that burst upon international culture with a completely new meaning for interiors.
The magazine featured some amazing dwellings such as Francis Bacon's studio, the legendary Vogue editor Diana Vreeland's apartment, "Garden in Hell", pianist Liberace's Las Vegas room; but also bombshells, the cells of female prisoners in New Mexico, and the townhouse of a lady living with 150 cats in Washington D.C.; and many other extraordinary interiors of both completely anonymous dwellers and famous public figures of the time.
Raymond Donahue’s bedroom was featured in the first issue of Nest in 1997. The walls and ceiling were covered in photocopies of actress Farrah Fawcett’s magazine. Photo: The Best of Nest, by Todd Oldham., source: https://www.curbed.com/article/the-best-of-nest-magazine-excerpt.html
Cover of Nest magazine by Todd Oldham. The story featured a Tiffany blue bedroom of the lady living in Washington D.C. with 150 cats. The magazine’s printer glued glinting red glitter inside each litter box as imagined by Joseph Holtzman, source: https://www.1stdibs.com/introspective-magazine/best-of-nest/
Nest, Issue 10 (Fall 2000), featuring pianist Liberace’s Las Vegas living room. The Best of Nest by Todd Oldham. Photograph by Grant Mudfor, source: https://somethingcurated.com/2020/11/13/the-best-of-nest-celebrating-the-cult-interior-design-magazines-legacy/
Personally, it was Lisa’s Instagram photos of her current Newark apartment, a dwelling high within a 1960s tower, that reawakened my passion for Japanese aesthetics. Her decoration corresponds perfectly to the key elements of this style: Wabi-sabi (simplicity, modesty, asymmetry), Miyabi (elegance), Shibui (simplicity) and Iki (spontaneity and originality). Contemplating the images of her rooms reminded me of the same fascination with objects I had already discerned in the movies of the Japanese film director Ozo Yasujiro, well known for expressing feelings through presentation of objects as things with faces and character.
Photo: Courtesy of Lisa Zeiger, can be found on her Instagram @lisazeiger. Owl painting by Tami Booher: @tamiboo63, abstract painting by Alan Good: @mid_century_mexico
From the movie Fleurs d'Equinoxe (Higanbana), Yasujiro Ozu, 1958, source: http://shangols.canalblog.com/archives/2008/08/31/10412269.html
The influence of Japanese aesthetics is also visible in the choice of fabrics. and the tendencies of Arts & Crafts movement in natural forms and simplicity, emphasizing the inherent beauty of material. As Tanizaki wrote with such delicacy in his famous "In Praise of Shadows'': "We do not dislike everything that shines, but we do prefer a pensive lustre to a shallow brilliance, a murky light that, whether in a stone or an artifact, bespeaks a shreen of antiquity.....We love things that bear the marks of grime, soot, and weather, and we love the colors and the sheen that call to mind the past that made them." (Tanizaki, 1993: 11-12)
Photo: Courtesy of Lisa Zeiger,@lisazeiger
Photo: Courtesy of Lisa Zeiger, @lisazeiger, Chinese cabinet from eBay, G's Vintage Goodies, Flower chair from Salvation Army, Newark.
When I asked Lisa about her philosophy and practice of interior design, she replied:
"I’ve come to believe, at last, that graceful spatial arrangement of furniture just might be the most important aspect of any aesthetic.”
“Even if an ordinary person (non-decorator or aesthete) has bought all their furniture, lamps, etc. from IKEA, or let’s say a discount outlet store of commonplace—even unattractive furniture—how each piece sits in a room and how they all relate to each other can make one very nearly turn a blind eye to lack of quality.
“I once rented a room from a guy who, as far as I knew, had no formal artistic training. But he emptied out this two bedroom apartment in East Harlem, and then painted some of the walls my very favorite red—brownish, almost the color of dried blood but not so dark. Cinnabar maybe?
“The other walls he painted a nice mousy gray. He proceeded to order furniture from Bob’s, a mundane, inexpensive American furniture franchise selling oversized “suites” of couches and recliners. But in this roommate’s hands—and above all in his very sparing use of a very small number of pieces—I found his decor to be every bit as clever and pleasing as that of any professional.”
“His living room had only a tall black sort of bar table surrounded by four tall black leather bar chairs. On the wall was a large square abstract painting— mass-produced—with angular shapes in red, yellow and blue with jagged black lines, a sort of poor man’s Ben Shahn. Even the art was from Bob’s Furniture! If I had seen this painting anywhere else I’d have dismissed it as hideous. But in this slightly lounge-bar ambience, it added an early 1960s, very jazzy note. I’ve always regretted that I didn’t photograph that room."
In 2017, Lisa moved to New Jersey from Manhattan, ditching its crippling rents, ill-paid “gigs”, and excessive overhead. She ceased to accept most commissioned writing and fees, in order to cultivate her own voice and ideas more powerfully. (Three notable exceptions are the Los Angeles online art magazine, www.riot material.com; COCOA: The Cornwall Journal of the Arts, in print and online; and the literary magazine, www.thewoventalepress.net, in print and online.
Since 2015 her blog, www.bookandroom.com, has explored rooms, designers, photographers, artists, art collectors, favorite films and novelists, the social treatment and fate of young women, and above all, scenes from the lives of her numerous close friends—her greatest treasure—whichever country or remote rural area they now inhabit.
In 2020, Schiffer Publishing of Pennsylvania commissioned Lisa to write two books on landscape architecture, a subject she assumed to be an outdoor analogue to the arrangement of rooms. She was wrong--gardens are fraught with many more complexities and uncertainties--and had to climb a steep learning curve with the guidance of the seasoned landscape designers she interviewed. Her first book, just finished, is set for publication in mid-2022. Its title is Repose In The Metropolis: The Private Landscapes of New York City. It focuses on the creative backgrounds and processes of ten prominent landscape designers, presenting the oases of nature they have brought to life in a tough urban environment.
Lisa's latest obsession is space. Until recently, she has harmoniously mastered the organization of the differing, often difficult spaces she inhabited, respecting the full extent of their historical and architectural codes. Her current interiors evoke tranquility and deep solitude, so much as the haiku of Matsuo Basho.
Photo: Courtesy of Lisa Zeiger featuring a painting by Andrew Lord, 2014 @lisazeiger.
Photo: Courtesy of Lisa Zeiger, @lisazeiger. African raffia cloth above the bed, gift from @Albertliesegang
Photo: Courtesy of Lisa Zeiger, @lisazeiger
"So space is now important to me, probably because I have more to work with than ever before. I’ve fallen in love with my new rooms which are uncluttered vistas rather than packed with collections. I’ve finally surrendered to Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s dictum for the whole 20th century: “Less is more.” Yet Lisa still craves smaller objects, above all ceramics,, and she mostly gets them for cheap at Salvation Army, where she never finds things of great value, but always of beauty.
Photo: Courtesy of Lisa Zeiger, @lisazeiger, Mythopoetic mid century ceramic vase from @oxfordgrayvintage. Turtle from Salvation Army. Vessel by Argo Pottery B.C. from @oxfordgrayvintage
"My own method of decorating is the exact opposite of professional decorators, who usually begin by analyzing architecture, proportions of rooms, flow from one room to another, etc. Whereas I cannot help but begin with a single talismanic smaller object or painting, which becomes the secret nucleus and source of the “finished” room. The object must be not only beautiful, but possess some personal significance for me: emotional, historical or perhaps either salvaged or an incredible bargain!"
Lisa's world is truly the one of speaking objects, in the aesthetic sense true to Kant's aesthetic theory where the work of art, or a true beautiful natural object would be to display a kind of free play of forms, consistent with the presence of purpose. The purpose though, remains inaccessible. And here lies maybe, the whole mystery of beauty that we so restlessly seek to find!
"I am going to make everything around me beautiful—that will be my life"
—Elsie de Wolfe, American actress and interior decorator
References and sources:
Crawford, Donald W.. "Kant's Aesthetic Theory", 1974, University of Wisconsin Press
Nest- A Wild Adventure, conference held by the New York School of Interior Design, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wuruK_b1TMY
Parkes, Graham. "Japanese Aesthetics''. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, December 4, 2018, https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/japanese-aesthetics/
Tanizaki, Junichiro. "In Praise of Shadows", Vintage Publishing, 2001
Thomson, Elspeth. "The Celtic Ranger". The World of Interiors, April issue, 1993
Zeiger, Lisa. "No Ideas But In Things". Book and Room, August 16, 2019, bookandroom.com
Zeiger, Lisa. "The House of Self-Undoing". Book and Room, August 12, 2016, bookandroom.com
Zeiger, Lisa. "Autobiography of an Anglophile", excerpted from Outlaw Aria, 2021, copyright by Lisa Zeiger
Zeiger Lisa. "The Cold Angel", unpublished
Zeiger, Lisa. "Hello To All That", Nest magazine, issue 1998
Stores and Dealers in Furniture and Decorations
Do All You Can While You Can, Vintage and Thrift. 126 Pacific Street, Newark, New Jersey. By appointment with the owner, Ralph St. John, 917-563-4597. Furniture, carpets, glass and ceramics, fine silver, paintings, antique frames, and important 1970s designer clothing, among three stories of a thousand other things.
The Salvation Army Family Store & Donation Center. 74 Pennington Street, Newark, New Jersey. Closed Sundays and Mondays. Opens 10 am. Men’s & Women’s used clothing, ceramics, kitchen and dining wares, furniture, bedding and throw pillows, shoes and handbags.
www.oxfordgrayvintage.etsy.com. Canadian mother and daughter team Jan and Taylor curate exceptional works of 20th century and contemporary studio ceramics, at reasonable prices. Also on Instagram @oxfordgrayvintage.
JohnMintonandMore, on Etsy. Exquisite woodcut prints by early to mid-20th century English masters of the genre: Eric Gill, Eric Ravilious, Tirzah Garwood, Gwen Raverat, Claire Leighton, Edward McKnight Kauffer, John Minton, and many others. The offerings of owner Roland’s superlative eye and connoisseurship, at reasonable prices. Also on Instagram @johnmintonandmore.
Hana Mission Thrift Store, 180 Washington Avenue, Belleville, NJ 97109. Nicely cared for used clothing with a sprinkling of major designers. Finds include a Christian Dior navy swing coat of Loro Piana wool for $20; an Hermes handbag for $8. 973-969-5905; www.hanamission.org.
I had a chance to listen to Ms. Zeiger during the conference she held about the history of Nest magazine and her precious contribution as the arts editor. Her passion for decorative arts is captivating!
What an outrageous artist! Thank you so much for this artistic delight and references that remind me of my best years!
Splendid. A much too brief visit to a place of repose.
Très bel article/ étude de la magnifique personnalité de Lisa Zeiger dont je suis le compte Instagram avec grand intérêt !
Bravo pour cette réalisation et pour votre choix !
Lisa Santos Silva
wonderful read, I enjoyed