Bari Ziperstein creates with her team in a 3300-square-foot warehouse in East Los Angeles, California. I visited her during the summer of 2019, while on a short trip to my hometown. She hails from the suburbs of Chicago where she grew up helping her dad in his warehouse and learning from her mom, a special-education teacher in the Buffalo Grove school districts. She’s always worked. Ideas around labor, business savvy, and connecting with her team are key to understanding her art.
The warm stillness of southern California outside the studio marked a delightful distinction from the activated coolness inside. Areas of open space, shelves upon shelves of works in progress and finished pieces, small rooms leading off the main space—everything showed purpose and care. Through her studio, she runs several lines of ceramic businesses: fine art sculptures by Bari Ziperstein along with a series of one-of-a-kind ceramic furniture and planters showcased by the design gallery The Future Perfect, and under BZIPPY, a production design line and a limited-edition collectible design series.
Foundational Inspiration and an Equitable Perspective
Ziperstein and I huddled up in her small, windowless office to chat. A poster from a Brutalist architecture book titled Cosmic Communist Constructions hangs on the wall opposite her desk. As an undergraduate, she was a student of art and women’s studies. She also holds an MFA from The California Institute of the Arts (CalArts), a college in Southern California known for its conceptual philosophy. While the CalArts’ graduate school placed a strong emphasis on concept, today Ziperstein is interested in materials, theory, and more. She’s a businessperson and an artist who is not bound by the dynamics of an academic teaching position at a university. Ziperstein’s confidence in dealing with a myriad of challenges, setting her own terms, and supporting her team are worth exploring and she has much to teach us in the ceramic community. She has constructed a place in the design world and is creating art.
She builds on a foundation of Brutalism and Constructivism. In Brutalist architecture, a style primarily developed in Great Britain after WWII, materials were left raw and simple. Ziperstein mimics Brutalism’s geometric forms with minimal use of color, and her design objects often serve traditional functions. Vases, vessels, lamps, and furniture, all fabricated by hand, are primarily made with slabs.
She has five full-time employees (including herself), pays hourly to compensate for overtime, and hires others on an hourly basis as needed. Members of her team hold various positions: they are fabricators and studio managers, as well as sales and marketing specialists. Her business provides healthcare for her full-time staff, several of whom have their own studio practices. This form of corporate responsibility is fundamental to her values. Unlike the studio/corporate/nonprofit world, the unpaid intern or apprentice position does not exist in her company. Her practice insists on fair pay and it aligns with the philosophies and integrity of her art. Like many of us, Ziperstein struggles to live in a sustainable economy that supports both capitalism and civil society without squeezing its workers.
Exploration and Range
In the Soviet Bloc, especially during a building boom from the 1960s into the 1990s, Brutalist construction was associated with a denial of the individual and notions of totalitarianism. Ziperstein playfully riffs off these aesthetics to create personal forms that sit inside our homes or on our porches, patios, and balconies. These are social objects meant to be touched, the antithesis of power and domination.
Buildings hold us by design. Sometimes we’re even swallowed up by raw concrete, prominent pillars, rows upon rows of hallways, and walls of windows. As an educator, I can say that some schools where I have taught and visited in my 20-plus years in education feel institutional and are designed to feel oppressive. Brutalist construction embodies this capacity; the presumed innocent person heading into a courtroom is not meant to feel empowered, but to feel diminished and weak. In Ziperstein’s work, the tension between size and form play subtly and beautifully.
Her line with The Future Perfect is a dynamic range of one-of-a-kind forms for high-end collectible design, while the production line work is simpler and at a lower price point. She makes work along with her fabricators, doing research and development to create the forms. Her clients range from interior designers and individual collectors to wholesale customers who purchase objects for a variety of spaces from restaurants to hotels. These access points are another component in understanding the many levels of BZIPPY.
The artists, designers, and architects associated with Constructivist ideals after World War I were interested in a pure style that let go of detail and connected to industry in a fluid way. They dismissed classical representation of history and nature in favor of abstracted geometric patterns. The changes brought about by the Industrial Revolution were in full swing and trains, automobiles, and soon airplanes were shifting people’s notions of labor, speed, time, and space. The Constructivists pursued a vision of equity, but ironically its clean-slate approach to history played well with the totalitarian impulse behind Brutalism. This disjunction provides a meaningful and complex ground for exploration.
Which brings us to Ziperstein’s fine-art sculpture. The series Patterns of Propaganda began after a 2015–16 residency at the Wende Museum of the Cold War in Culver City, California (www.wendemuseum.org), which preserves artifacts and history of the Cold War era, where she explored the work of women textile artists of the Russian Revolution; it’s worth going to the Charles Moffett gallery in New York City (https://charlesmoffett.com) if you would like to learn more. Her materials—stoneware and earthenware clay bodies—connect to the concepts in her Patterns of Propaganda series, all of which play off cause and effect. In these works, she’s examining oppression today in the areas of human rights, US politics, rights for laborers, voting rights, health care, the environment, and more. What is propaganda? Basically it’s information used to sway people. It’s a tool governments, media, and corporations have used for centuries, tapping into our psychology of need and fear. With this series, Ziperstein questions herself and us. What do we believe? What is fair business practice? Is it just? Who benefits? If belief girds our actions, are our beliefs still meaningful today? And if not, what actions do we take? These are questions for everyone, and both Ziperstein’s business and art examine them.
Growing Creativity in the Face of Obstacles
The COVID-19 pandemic and our country’s civic uprising after the murder of George Floyd bring a whole new set of cause-and- effect relationships for Ziperstein to investigate and catalysts for internal and external creativity to grow.
Ziperstein and I connected by phone after the COVID-19 related shutdown. She closed up shop abruptly in March based on the closure guidelines from the City of Los Angeles. She had to think about a longer-term studio shut down rather than just a work stoppage. Since manufacturing cannot be done remotely, terminating the production team was a choice made knowing they didn’t have enough business or permission from the city to keep manufacturing on a large scale. The staff strategically made this difficult choice because it allowed the team to receive their sick time paid out in full and apply for unemployment. All production-team employees had their healthcare extended for the following three months. During this time Ziperstein went about the business and fabrication alone. It had been approximately ten years since she’d had this kind of time in the studio. In the slowness, she reflected. She worked. As she has always done. She shared with me the privileges of survival and having established relationships with banks, a lawyer, and HR professionals. Her learning through all this is something she’s working toward sharing with others who are new to the field.
She’s never required her employees to hold MFAs like many in this industry, and even some in community craft schools. She sees the gatekeeping here and is pushing through. Understanding structural and institutional racism, sexism, classism, and more is key in comprehending the barriers faced by those furthest down in any hierarchy. Her examinations throughout her life and education have given her the needed foundation to build on this knowledge, make mistakes, learn, and rebuild.
The world is shifting, it’s always been turning. An unexpected boon of the devastation of COVID-19 and our continuing civic transformation has been a new awakening of how to use one’s power and operationalize equity. Using her company’s profits, she’s adding to her personal collection intentionally by purchasing work by Black ceramic artists. She researches and compiles information about new artists and on Instagram she’s begun a new social-media project to learn and teach BZIPPY followers about ceramic artists of all backgrounds. The project came out of a need to push beyond the most immediate circle of artists in her community and dedicate herself to learning about new artists working in ceramics.
These actions are a lift for everyone.
As of late this summer, BZIPPY has been back in the studio. She laments that she was not able to bring everyone back and is searching for answers to what this all means. The studio has changed, physically and productively, and perhaps forever. Not all architectural styles serve the purpose for which they were originally intended. Bari Ziperstein continues to work and explore how to share a message through the medium of clay and community. She doesn’t work alone, and she pushes to support her community and team to connect facing forward with workers’ rights. The studio and art making stand as a grand metaphor of control and construction. We build worlds searching for control, taking risks and experiencing collapse at times. She embraces the risks, adapts, and moves with a willingness to be uncomfortable, even out of control, opening more doors for herself and the greater creative community.
Bari Ziperstein’s collectible design can be seen and purchased through The Future Perfect (www.thefutureperfect.com); she is represented by Charles Moffet (https://charlesmoffett.com) in New York City; and she’s installing a public art work at University of California, Riverside curated by Corrina Peipon. Learn more at http://bariziperstein.com.