The seder plate is an open book for an Oakland artist

It's the centerpiece of every Passover table the world over.

No, not that purplish mess of horseradish and matzah pieces after the Hillel sandwich.

It's the seder plate, adorned with the ritual foods of Pesach: shank bone, charoset, bitter herbs, roasted egg, green vegetable.

This year, just in time for the holiday, Oakland-based artist-designer Liz Ross has come up with an alternative to the "been there, done that" seder plate.

It's the "BookPlate," Ross' original design in the shape of an open book.

"What is the seder after all but an open book?" she says. "An opportunity for discussion, reflection and learning."

The signed, limited-edition "BookPlate" is made of nickel-plated brass, with spaces for the ritual foods hollowed out in an austere, minimalist design. It sells for $165 with shipping and tax.

For those who want something more ornate and/or affordable, Ross is developing a porcelain version of the "BookPlate," decorated with painted pomegranates, garlands and gold filigree.

The idea for the "BookPlate" came to Ross in a flash. "I was listening to some boring lecture about something completely unrelated to Passover," she recalls, "and this image of an open book came to mind. So I sketched it."

Forget the romantic image of the lone sculptress holed up in a studio, hands caked with clay. In the case of Ross and the "BookPlate" — her first work of Judaica — a decidedly more modern approach was taken.

"I sent the technical drawings to a factory in India," she says. "They're making them by hand."

Farming it out like that isn't unusual for Ross, who as a product designer ("my day job," as she calls it) has created and licensed products for such major companies as Williams-Sonoma.

She's also designed and distributed such unusual products as snow globes (those shake-'em-up glass balls filled with swirling snowflakes). "I was homesick for New York," she recalls. "I noticed that no one made globes with falling leaves, so I designed one depicting Central Park in autumn. It's a quiet world that looks very natural."

That artistic eye for detail comes naturally to Ross. A native of Long Island, she remembers standing in line to see the Mona Lisa at age 5. "We were constantly at the symphony or the opera," she recalls of her arts-intensive childhood. "In high school, I would cut class not to smoke cigarettes but to go to the Joffrey Ballet."

She later followed her brother, a Stanford law student, out West, settling in the Bay Area. She counts among her early creative gigs a stint making costumes for the San Francisco Opera and serving as a stylist for professional photographers.

Later she broke into product design, making such disparate products as nickel-plated finger plates and other dishware, as well as textiles.

"I've enjoyed it all," she says. "It was the positive side of having attention-deficit disorder!"

As for her Jewish roots, Ross grew up close to her Orthodox grandfather. "For me, the seder was a long, arduous thing for a hungry child to sit through," she says, "but I have fond memories of the men singing songs while women swept up the matzah crumbs."

As an adult, Ross has kept close to her traditions. "What's important to me is the ritual aspect of Judaism," she says. "At times I think ritual can be the most meaningful thing of all."

Ross unveiled a prototype of "BookPlate" at a family seder last year and was thrilled it went over well. "People seemed to 'get it,'" she says. "It's more than a symbol of the Haggadah. The purpose of Passover, especially now, is to spark conversation, debate and discussion. Passover itself is an open book."

Ross is distributing "BookPlate" through her own company, Monkey & Peddler (named for the same folk tale that gave us "Caps For Sale," the children's storybook classic). The Web site is "BookPlate" is also available at Afikomen in Berkeley.

She runs her company out of her Jack London Square loft that she shares with her husband, a photographer-artist-sound designer. "We're an army of two," says Ross.

With the winds of war blowing across a world seemingly gone mad, sometimes Ross wonders if what she does in her tiny corner has any meaning.

"I sometimes think I contribute to the clutter of the world," says Ross. "There's way too much useless stuff in the world, and on bad days I think I'm just designing land fill. But my friends tell me people still need things, people still need to have pleasure."

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.