Eva Zeisel, Ceramic Artist and Designer, Dies at 105
By WILLIAM L. HAMILTON DEC. 30, 2011
Eva Zeisel, a ceramic artist whose elegant, eccentric designs for dinnerware in the 1940s and ’50s helped to revolutionize the way Americans set their tables, died on Friday in New City, N.Y. She was 105.
Her death was confirmed by her daughter, Jean Richards.
Ms. Zeisel (pronounced ZY-sel), along with designers like Mary and Russel Wright and Charles and Ray Eames, brought the clean, casual shapes of modernist design into middle-class American homes with furnishings that encouraged a postwar desire for fresh, less formal styles of living.
“Museum,” the porcelain table service that brought Ms. Zeisel national notice, was commissioned by its manufacturer, Castleton China, in conjunction with the Museum of Modern Art in New York, which introduced it in an exhibition in 1946, its first show devoted to a female designer.
Ms. Zeisel’s work, which ultimately spanned nine decades, was at the heart of what the museum promoted as “good design”: domestic objects that were beautiful as well as useful and whose beauty lent pleasure to daily life.
“She brought form to the organicism and elegance and fluidity that we expect of ceramics today, reaching as many people as possible,” said Paola Antonelli, a curator of architecture and design at the museum. “It’s easy to do something stunning that stays in a collector’s cabinet. But her designs reached people at the table, where they gather.”
Born Eva Amalia Striker in Budapest on Nov. 13, 1906, she was the daughter of Laura Polanyi Striker and Alexander Striker. Her father owned a textile factory. Her mother was a historian, feminist and political activist.
In 1923, Ms. Zeisel entered the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Budapest to study painting. She withdrew three semesters later, inspired by an aunt’s Hungarian peasant pottery collection to become a ceramist. She apprenticed to Jakob Karapancsik, a member of the guild of chimney sweepers, oven makers, roof tilers, well diggers and potters, and graduated as a journeyman.
During a summer trip to Paris in 1925, she visited the Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes — the source of the term Art Deco — which exhibited work by leading new designers like Le Corbusier and which introduced Ms. Zeisel to modern movements like the Bauhaus and the International style. She later wrote that she thought modernist design “too cold,” a quality she spent much of her professional life trying to keep out of her own work with humane, humorous versions of it.
Back in Budapest, Ms. Zeisel’s exhibition at local trade fairs brought her to the attention of Hungarian ceramic manufacturers, who commissioned several collections. In 1926, her work was displayed at the Philadelphia Sesquicentennial.
In 1928, a ceramics manufacturer in Schramberg, Germany, hired her to design tableware. The job transformed her from a studio artist who threw pots on a wheel into an industrial designer. She now drafted designs whose success would be based, in addition to their aesthetic appeal, on their ability to be mass-manufactured and merchandised effectively.
Ms. Zeisel moved to Berlin in 1930, immersing herself in the vibrant cafe society of the Weimar Republic. A visit to Ukraine in 1932 opened Ms. Zeisel’s eyes to a new realm of possibilities as a designer.
Taking work at the former imperial porcelain factory in Leningrad, she realized through exposure to its archives of 18th-century tableware that “the clean lines of modern design could be successfully combined with sensuous, classic shapes,” as she later wrote. Ms. Zeisel’s signature became just that: forms that were at once contemporary and lyrical.
By 1935, she was working in Moscow as the artistic director of the Russian republic’s china and glass industry. On May 28, 1936, she was arrested, falsely accused by a colleague of conspiring to assassinate Stalin. She was imprisoned for 16 months, mostly in solitary confinement, an experience that Arthur Koestler, a childhood friend, drew upon in writing his celebrated 1941 novel, “Darkness at Noon.”
Again, Ms. Zeisel’s eyes were opened. “You feel the difference first in the way you see colors,” she wrote later of the deprivations of prison.
In 1937, Ms. Zeisel was released without explanation and traveled to Vienna. She left on March 12, 1938, when the Nazis entered Austria. Arriving in Britain, she was reunited with Hans Zeisel, a lawyer and sociologist whom she had met in Berlin. They were married and emigrated to the United States later that year.
Ms. Zeisel put herself in touch with American ceramics manufacturers by looking up the addresses of trade publications at the public library during her second day in New York. In 1939 she began teaching at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, where she presented ceramics as industrial design, not craft as it was traditionally taught.
In 1940, when Castleton China, a Pennsylvania company, asked the Museum of Modern Art to recommend a designer to create a modernist porcelain table service, Eliot Noyes, director of the design department, suggested Ms. Zeisel. The design was completed in 1943; production was delayed by the war until 1946.
Her “Museum” table service was critically acclaimed but commercially controversial in a marketplace where formal china was expected to look overtly fancy. But the publicity attending its introduction brought Ms. Zeisel many commissions and much sales success. That success helped her develop the sense of play in her designs, which infused in objects an enjoyment that was passed on in their use.
Ms. Zeisel’s daughter, Jean, was born in 1940; her son, John, was born in 1944. Motherhood opened her eyes once more. Dinner services took on familial relationships between individual pieces, with shapes that complemented each other rather than repeat themselves. “Town & Country,” designed in the 1940s, has salt and pepper shakers that nestle, one into the other, like a mother and child.
“Men have no concept of how to design things for the home,” she told a writer. “Women should design the things they use.”
In addition to her daughter and son, Ms. Zeisel, who had homes in Manhattan and New City, is survived by three grandchildren. Hans Zeisel, a professor of sociology at the University of Chicago, died in 1992.
After leaving Pratt in 1954, Ms. Zeisel returned less and less frequently to commercial design in the next 20 years. In 1964 she exhibited a metal chair, for which she received a mechanical patent, at the Milan Triennale. Small collections of ceramics, glass and metal appeared in the 1980s and ’90s, as well as reissues of earlier work, which had become prized by collectors. She was the subject of a retrospective, “Eva Zeisel: Designer for Industry,” organized in 1984 by the Montreal Museum of Decorative Arts.
In 1999 Ms. Zeisel collaborated on a collection of vases with two young ceramists in Brooklyn, James Klein and David Reid. She remained active almost until the end of her life.
Crate and Barrel sells an updated version of her Hallcraft dinner service. Recent rug and furniture designs of hers are on the market, with a line of her lighting fixtures scheduled for release in 2012.
Her book “Eva Zeisel on Design” was published by Overlook Press in 2004. A memoir of her time in prison is scheduled to be published electronically in 2012.
“She’s a conduit to pure things,” Mr. Klein said in 2007. He recalled that Ms. Zeisel, who had a strong appreciation of the history of decorative arts and a personal acquaintance with most of the modern design movements of the 20th century, told him never to try to create anything new. Asked how to make something beautiful, he said, she replied, “You just have to get out of the way.”
Correction: January 4, 2012
An obituary on Saturday about Eva Zeisel, a ceramic artist and designer, reversed the given names of two young ceramists who collaborated with her on a collection of vases. They are James Klein and David Reid.