Eva was the first | Life and ceramics of Eva Zeisel

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Sergey Makhno Architects
August 27, 2019

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She lived for more than a century, went from apprentice pottery workshop from Budapest to a world-famous designer. She had dinner with Stalin and spent a year and a half in a Soviet prison on a false charge of attempted murder. She was the first female designer to have a show mounted at the Museum of Modern Art. It’s all about Eva Zeisel — a ceramic artist whose elegant dinnerware in the 1940s and ’50s revolutionized the way people all over the world set their tables.

EARLY CAREER

Eva Zeisel began her career in a homeland, at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts, but she didn’t stay there for a long time. After studying for three semesters, the future legend of ceramics preferred the pottery workshops to the faculty of painting, because she dreamed of feeling her craft with hands but not doing academic exercises in the dusty lecture halls of the academy. The young girl was so fascinated by pottery that she not only opened her own ceramic workshop but also stood behind the counter, selling her plates in the Budapest market.

The turning point was the Paris International Exhibition of Modern Decorative and Industrial Art of 1925. It became the landmark of Eva’s creative search, having introduced her to the Bauhaus — a design school that legitimized the dictates of the rational over the emotional. Having moved to Germany, the homeland of the Bauhaus, she lost faith in its ideals, feeling how far they are from the people.

In 1928, Eva became the designer for the Schramberger Majolika Fabrik, where she worked for about two years, creating playfully geometric designs for dinnerware, tea sets, vases, inkwells, and other ceramic items. Her designs were largely influenced by Art Deco and started to include circular, oval and streamlined forms, becoming more welcoming and warming the soul. 

“I don’t create angular things. I’m a more circular person — it’s more my character. Even the air between my hands is round.”, — Zeisel about her designs in a New York Sun article.

In 1930, Eva moved to Berlin and worked for the Carstens factories. So, she became one of the first industrial designers of the century to start mass production. However, Eva never considered herself an industrial designer, preferring the term “maker of things”. 

“They (industrial designers) are all obsessed with innovation, dreaming to surprise the world. I have never had such ambitions,” — she said, denouncing their commercial, not aesthetic, concept. Have you already noticed the non-conformist nature of this brilliant woman? The items that came out of her workshop are made for people and everyday life, not fashion showcases.

“My definition of beauty includes popular taste… Beauty is not an elitist’s enjoyment. The sunset’s colors are for all to enjoy,” — Zeisel said. 

LIFE IN THE USSR 

After two years of a glamorous life among intellectuals and artists in Berlin, Eva fell in love with the physicist Alex Weisberg, who worked in Kharkiv. That dramatically changed her life — in 1932 they became engaged and moved to the USSR. After several years of painstaking work and contrasting life in the Soviet Union, at the age of 29, Zeisel became the artistic director of the entire porcelain and glass industry in the country. Working at the Leningrad Porcelain Factory, Eva humanized Soviet pointless suprematism, harmoniously combining hard lines and soft forms. It is Eva Zeisel whom Russia owes the famous dinnerware “Suprematism” and “Intourist”. 

However, professional recognition didn’t save Eva from the persecution of the repressive machine of the USSR. She was accused of attempted murder of Stalin and put in solitary confinement in a Leningrad prison. After a year and a half, she was unexpectedly released, provided that she must leave the country immediately. Bypassing Poland, Eva stopped in Austria. Then, she went to England, where she married law student Hans Zeisel, who had waited for her favor for seven years. In 1938, the couple emigrated to the United States, having only 64 dollars for two of them.

AMERICA — SECOND HOMELAND 

A foreign country gave Eva Zeisel recognition and calm. Her works belong to the world, but the right to call her the national designer belongs to America. In the early 40s, she was already recognized as one of the best American ceramic designers, having released the iconic dinnerware set “Stratoware”, that was later acquired by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. In 1942, the Castleton China Company of Pennsylvania and New York’s Museum of Modern Art commissioned Eva to design dinnerware, which resulted in her celebrated “Museum” set. In 1946, the MoMA featured “Museum” in a solo exhibition of Zeisel’s works — for the first time, the woman was an author of an exhibition of this kind.

In 1946–47, the artist designed a dining set “Town and Country” for Red Wing Pottery of Minnesota. It included a set of salt and pepper shakers that nestled together like a mother and child. The tenderness from such a set is passed on even to the most callous people, isn’t it?

“I have rarely designed objects that were meant to stand alone,” Zeisel wrote. “My designs have family relationships. They are either mother and child, siblings, or cousins. They might not have identical lines, but there is always a family relationship.” 

Around 1949–1952, Zeisel created her most popular line, “Tomorrow’s Classic”, commissioned by Hall China Company. It was a full line of dinnerware and tableware accessories, including plates, bowls, cups & saucers, serving platters and bowls, butter dishes, sugar bowls and creamers, candleholders, salt & pepper shakers, etc.

RECENT WORKS 

Eva Zeisel stopped designing during the 1960s and 1970s in order to work on American history writing projects, returning to work in the 1980s. Many of her recent designs showed that in addition to ceramics, she was also attracted to the design of furniture and carpets. For example, this coffee table was designed by in 1993. Just look at these fancy marine dwellers that keep graceful glass countertops.

Recently Eva designed rugs. For The Rug Company, she took as a basis the design of ceramic tiles developed by her in the 50s. Not only the coloring itself is remarkable, but also the material — the wool of a Tibetan sheep. 

Other iconic designs of recent years are porcelain, crystal, and limited-edition prints for KleinReid, glasses, and giftware for Nambé, a teakettle for Chantal, furniture, and giftware for Eva Zeisel Originals — her own online retail store established in 2006. Eva released two designs in 2010 through this store: Eva Zeisel Lounge Chair and Eva Zeisel Salt & Pepper Shakers. Her new designs for a line of glass lamps were introduced by Leucos USA in 2012 after her death.

RECOGNITION 

Eva Zeisel, a poet of industrial design, died at the age of 105 in 2011. The “idol of the sensual form,” as contemporaries call her, has always wanted to make people happy. Therefore, even her most daring creations are focused on human desires.

According to Eva, “art should rather captivate than induce intellectual conclusions. Beautiful things make people happy.”

Today, the works of Eva Zeisel are presented in many museums of contemporary art in the United States, Hungary, Russia, Germany, and the UK. She is an honorary member of the Royal Society of Industrial Designers and has received honorary degrees from Parsons, Rhode Island School of Design, the Royal College of Art, and the Hungarian University of the Arts.

 

Author — Victoria Tokatly
Main visual — Nikita Uvarov

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