In Fine Form

“As a kid, I was always drawing stupid little figures,” designer Lisa Ziff recalls. “I wasn’t one of those girls who could draw pretty horses.” But no matter. That early penchant for abstraction has blossomed into a line of gleaming cast-aluminum home accessories in shapes that evoke, say, a butternut squash, a whale, even ancient Mayan ruins. “People like to pick up my pieces and hold them,” the 32-year-old West L.A. native says of her nature-inspired vases. “Soft-edged forms are much more inviting for this harsh world.”

Ziff, who studied industrial design in Los Angeles and Rhode Island and did archival work for Frank Gehry, later abandoned furniture and interior design in Milan because, as she puts it: “Nothing new was being done.” She liked furniture for its interactive aspect. “I was attached to an old stuffed armchair because I could see where I sat. I left my imprint,” she explains. But she found she could leave more permanent impressions by designing and working in clay.

In 1995, she created her first three vases, whimsically known as Tula, Maya and Zola. “I don’t know,” she remembers, “their names just fit.” And she chose to cast them in aluminum because she loves the look of silver. “Aluminum has a cool reflection,” she says, her hands and wrist decorated with chunky silver rings and a thick silver watch. “It’s much more subtle than gold or brass, though it’s harder to work with. You can’t hide your mistakes.”

Today, Ziff’s line has grown to seven vases, one platter and a candlestick holder. All of the pieces--sold at the MOCA Store, Fred Segal in Santa Monica and C 3/8 Home Bath and Garden in the Beverly Center--are hand-cast by metalworkers at a Los Angeles foundry using aluminum recycled from old cars and pleasure boats. “That’s something I’m very proud of,” she says. “I’m not killing off any of nature’s resources.” The melted metal is ladeled into a mold, allowed to cool, then hand-polished, which can take up to an hour for each piece. At her Encino studio, Ziff inspects the completed pieces for any imperfections from dirty sand or humidity. “These are seconds,” she says, dismissing half-a-dozen Orca vases on her worktable. To the casual observer, they appear just fine, but not to the exacting designer, who admits that she’s “a real pain in the butt to work with.”


Ziff also dabbles in hand-blown glass vases (“a lot of exciting accidents happen”) and plans to experiment soon with the spun aluminum popularized by tumbler sets in the ‘50s and ‘60s. In the meantime, she enjoys hearing comments about her cast-aluminum creations. “People take what they want from art,” she says. “They will see my platter and go, ‘It’s called Sofia? Oh, [because it’s shaped like] lips!’ But I still see it as a torso.”


Vases by Lisa Ziff are part of “Hello Again: A New Wave of Recycled Art and Design.” on view through Nov. 16 at the Los Angeles Municipal Art Gallery at Barnsdall Art Park.