With the Wave of a Hand, 98-year-old Eva Zeisel is Still Making Magic

By Karen Klages

June 19, 2005

She finished her piece of pound cake, brought her hands up over the small tea table between us in her living room and said gently: "Can you see this?"

At 98 years old, with a voice that has softened to a whisper and "sight" achieved largely through her hands, Eva Zeisel continues to delight and amaze her fans and the larger world of design.

She's still working -- still designing new products and still championing the reissue of some of her classic, older works that have fallen out of production over the years.

"I don't like the word 'still,' " Zeisel tells me, getting a tad serious in between bites of sweet stuff and sips of tea, served from a teapot of her design. "The slogan is 'the playful search for beauty' . . . and it's continuing."

Those who follow design -- or at least see a Crate and Barrel advertisement every now and then -- need little introduction to the formidable Eva Zeisel, who will receive a Lifetime Achievement award this fall from the Smithsonian Institution's Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum in Manhattan weeks before she turns 99.

Along with Russel Wright and Ben Seibel (both of whom were her contemporaries in the U.S.; Wright died in 1976, Seibel in 1985), Zeisel is one of the great tableware designers of the 20th Century, although her repertoire also extends to furniture and other home products.

But her main media: everyday dishes and fancy porcelain; dinner plates; bowls; platters; glassware; salt and pepper shakers; vases; candlesticks.

Her message: Let there be beauty in everyday objects and let them be accessible to lots of people. (And in the early 1940s, she was saying those enlightened words long before Target and IKEA came along.)

Zeisel's style: modern but soft. Curves -- sometimes extravagant ones -- are her signature.

"It is more generous to make something round than something completely rigid," says the Hungarian-born Zeisel, noting that soft shapes feel better in the hands. "When I design something, I think of it as a gift to somebody else."

Zeisel likes her gifts to be playful too. Thus, her motto and mantra, "the playful search for beauty."

Which could take the form of salt and pepper shakers shaped like Shmoo, the Al Capp cartoon character.

Or a voluptuous teapot whose lid doubles as a little vase for flowers.

Or a sauce boat with swanlike arms.

We sat down for lunch with Zeisel last spring at her apartment on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, which has been in her family since 1938, when she and her husband, Hans Zeisel, along with her brother and his wife escaped the Nazi invasion of Europe and landed in New York. Oil paintings and furniture from her native Hungary and other parts of Europe fill these rooms, as do pieces of her career. A grouping of her porcelain vases nestle on an end table, just out of reach of an overzealous green houseplant. Teapots sit on a high cabinet.

Zeisel asks her visitor to lower the windows (the street sounds of Manhattan are wafting in from below) "so we can hear each other better."

And indeed, there is a lot to take in.


In the works: a new collection of Eva Zeisel glassware -- water, wine and champagne glasses -- for Nambe of Santa Fe. It will launch this fall.

(Bob Borden, vice president of design and creative director at Nambe, describes the glasses as "feminine, elegant" with a fluted stem that flares out and has "almost a dresslike effect.")

KleinReid, a porcelain-maker in Brooklyn, recently unveiled Eva Zeisel's trio of crystal vases, now done in a gold-colored crystal.

There is talk about the reissue of those Shmoo salt and pepper shakers (from Zeisel's Town and Country earthenware of the 1940s).

And there is "interest" in resurrecting her elegant Museum china, also from the '40s -- provided the original molds can be found.

This follows a dazzling relaunch earlier this year of one of Zeisel's most beautiful dinnerware designs: her Classic Century earthenware from the 1950s.

The original molds were unearthed in the basement of Hall China Co. in Ohio. And Zeisel and Royal Stafford of England, a pottery factory, collaborated on the reissue. Selling it exclusively in the U.S. is Crate and Barrel (which was uncharacteristically flummoxed by consumer demand and ran out of stock at one point this year).

Also soon-to-be born again: Zeisel's glass-and-wood furniture, which she designed in the 1980s and '90s. Plans are in the works to sell pieces online and in limited quantities.

There's more.

A new desk pen, watch, cuff links, card case and earrings. Zeisel designed them for Acme Studio, a Hawaii-based company that specializes in designer writing tools and accessories.

And then there's a possible collaboration in the offing between Zeisel and Swarovski, which came a courting Zeisel earlier this year. Zeisel submitted a number of sketches to the Austrian crystal-maker.

Seeing beauty in the world

Not to be left out: Zeisel's authorship.

Her book "Eva Zeisel On Design: The Magic Language of Things" (The Overlook Press, 213 pages, $37.50), in which Zeisel waxes philosophical on design and inspiration and how to see beauty in the world around you, came out last year.

And she's currently working on her biography with Karen Kettering, the curator of the traveling exhibition "Eva Zeisel: The Playful Search for Beauty." The exhibition is now in Washington, D.C., at the Hillwood Museum & Gardens, where Kettering is curator of Russian and Eastern European Arts.

So how does a woman pushing 100 do it?

Zeisel simply smiles.

Doing the design dance

"She's amazing," says Olivia Barry, Zeisel's 31-year-old part-time design assistant in a phone interview conducted later. (Full-time, Barry works for Isaac Mizrahi as senior designer for home decor, which is sold at Target stores).

"I was a big fan of her when I was in art school" in Detroit, says Barry, who looked up Zeisel in the New York phone book several years ago and wrote her a letter. "It took me a year to work up the courage to send it to her."

The timing was right, though. Zeisel's former assistant was leaving. And Zeisel-Barry have been working together ever since.

"I'm just sort of her hands, getting it down, the hard line," Barry explains.

Zeisel will draw something in the air, "almost like she's conducting in the air," Barry says. And then Zeisel will put it down on paper in a sketch, using a thick black Sharpie.

Barry then takes the pad and the dance begins.

"We sit side-by-side on the couch and pass the pad and Sharpie back and forth" sometimes 11 or 12 times, Barry says, "with me tracing over her drawing, her revising it, me revising that. I just basically do a cleaner version and she perfects it -- the curve."

There is no small talk, Barry says. Zeisel is "problem solving."

"She will say things like `Make it a little fatter.' `Give it a little belly.' `Make it more elegant.' `Make it a little thinner,'" Barry says. "She is just extraordinary."

Occasionally, Barry will take Zeisel's sketch and cut it out of construction paper "so she can run her hand over it," Barry says. "She will even pretend to drink out of the paper glass" if it's a glass she's working on.

None of this enthusiasm surprises those who know Zeisel -- who rarely spends evenings alone and prefers to conduct business meetings over a glass of white wine.

"It's genetic in her family," says Kettering, the curator and biographer. "Her mother was the first woman in Hungary to get a Ph.D. [in history]. There are multiple Nobel Prize winners [in her family]. She comes from this really energetic, avant-garde family that said `Do what you want to do and pursue it.'"

Design was what Zeisel wanted to do.

By age 22, she "was waltzing into these major jobs," Kettering says. She answered an ad and landed the job of chief designer at the huge Schramberg Majolika Factory in the Black Forest of Germany.

In the early 1930s, she left Germany and took off for the Soviet Union, drawn by curiosity. "She went to Russia speaking no Russian, with a dictionary in her pocket," Kettering says, "and got a job [in design] in two weeks."

She is, Kettering says, "this incredibly brave, chutzpah-filled artist."

And she is a person who lives for the here and now.

"She always says the most important thing is to live in the moment and to stop worrying about the future," says Allen Cordell, 27, a filmmaker and another of Zeisel's small circle of assistants. He handles Zeisel's archives, files and correspondence.

"It's about trying to exist in that one moment where you are," Cordell continues. "She seems to do it."

Like right now.

Asked if she has a favorite piece among all her designs, Zeisel slips into the moment.

"I don't have one favorite piece," says the designer, who pulls into her arms the serving bowl from her reissued Classic Century collection. It was sitting on the table before us. She runs her finger around its rim, admiring the smoothness of the edges and smiling. "As this is just in front of me, let me love it."

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Where to find Eva Zeisel designs

Interested in buying some of the Eva Zeisel designs we featured? Here are the sources at which you can do that:

Lomonosov bone china tea service: Call Ameico, the U.S. distributor, at 888-350-8765 for stores. Only two sets are made a month. At $4,800 a set, this is some of Zeisel's most precious work. The service includes a teapot, creamer, sugar bowl, six each of cups, saucers and dessert plates.

Trio of crystal vases: Visit www.kleinreid.com for stores. Prices: $375 for a trio of vases; $1,160 for an 11-piece grouping.

Nambe glassware: Available in the fall through www.nambe.com or call 800-443-0339. About $35 a stem.

Talisman desk pen: Visit www.acmestudio.com for stores. Price: $131.

Classic Century dinnerware: At Crate and Barrel stores or www.crateandbarrel.com. A five-piece place setting costs $62.95; a 20-piece set is $236.95.