What makes the designer extraordinary says her daughter is her generosity. “She always says she thinks of her designs as a gift to her audience, said Jean Richards, whose mother will be 102 on Nov. 13. “She has always tried to do that are beautiful and elegant and enhance people’s lives. She does it with a spirit of generosity and giving.”
Born Eva Stricker in Budapest, Hungary in 1906, she attended the Royal Academy of Fine Arts at age 17 with the dream of becoming a painter. Her mother convinced her to learn a trade as well. Eva apprenticed as a potter and soon found work as a designer at a local ceramics factory.
Eva moved to a new job in Schramberg, Germany, where she acquired skills in all phases of industrial ceramics production. She later worked in Berlin and Hamburg.
Intrigued by the artistic and social movements taking place in Russia, Eva went on a vacation there in 1932. While in Leningrad she accepted a position at the Lomonosov factory, the former Imperial Porcelain Factory. Quickly she became artistic director for the porcelain and glass industries for the entire country.
Faience 16-piece Tea Set, made in Schramberg, Germany, early in Zeisel’s career. Image courtesy Sollo-Rago Modern Auctions.
In 1936 she was falsely accused of plotting to kill Soviet leader Joseph Stalin, and was imprisoned. Without explanation, she was released 16 months later and placed on a train to Austria. There she narrowly evaded the Nazi takeover, fleeing to England. She reunited with Hans Zeisel, who had been waiting for her. They married and emigrated to the United States in 1938 with $64 between them.
“She immediately went to the library, picked up a trade magazine and went to the editor. She immediately picked up a couple little jobs,” said Jean Richards, Eva’s daughter.
The Zeisels settled in New York. With her impressive credentials, Eva created the department of ceramic arts industrial design at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, where she taught until 1952.
“Her teaching career at Pratt was parallel with her designing. She very much enjoyed it. Many of her students became her assistants in the studio. A lot of her students were older because they were (veterans) going to school on the GI Bill,” said Richards.
Tomorrow’s Classic tea and dinner service, Hallcraft: Sotheby’s sold 103 pieces of Tomorrow’s Classic tea and dinner service in June 2006 for $1,800, inclusive of the buyer’s premium. The transfer-printed mark on the pieces reads Hallcraft by Eva Zeisel. Image courtesy Sotheby’s New York.
Meanwhile she continued freelance designing for the leading manufacturers in the ceramics industry. Her first major design in America was Museum Ware, done in conjunction with the Museum of Modern Art and manufactured by Castleton China. “It was the first all-white dinnerware set done in America,” said Richards. “That put her on the map in America. It was her breakthrough design.”
Reviews said its clean shapes and elegant forms reflected the best of European Modernism. Zeisel actually designed the Museum Ware line in the early 1940s, but World War II delayed its release until 1946.
The Museum of Modern Art’s special exhibition in conjunction with the launch of Museum Ware enabled American homemakers to put a face with Eva Zeisel’s name, which appeared on many of her designs.
An exception is Town and Country dinnerware for Red Wing, which was not marked. Town and Country was less formal and had biomorphic shapes, including tabbed handle lids and tilted bowls and pans.
Introduced in 1946, this colorful and boldly modern line remained in production for 11 years.
Reproduction 1945 shakers, Orange Chicken. Zeisel authorized The Orange Chicken LLC to produce these earthenware salt and pepper shakers in 1999 based on her Town and Country line of 1945. Collection of the Erie Art Museum.
Another of her successful designs was the aptly named Tomorrow’s Classic introduced in 1949 and later manufactured by Hall China Co.
Pat Moore, founder of the Eva Zeisel Collectors Club, now the Eva Zeisel Forum, discovered the designer’s work while attempting to fill out a table setting of Tomorrow’s Classic in the Bouquet pattern, which she had inherited from her mother.
“One thing led to another and I ended up talking to Eva on the phone,” said Moore. “The more I found out about her the more enthusiastic I got about her work. It started out with the shape of this design that I had grown up with, but then as I found other things … I just really fell in love with her lines with the shapes she designed.”
Now Moore collects everything Zeisel has ever designed. “We don’t add too much because we probably have the largest collection of Eva’s designs anyplace,” she said.
“I’ve lost track as to the number of lines. At one time I had a list of 50 different names that her work had come out under different company names,” said Moore.
Zsolnay porcelain vessels, 1999. Based on Eva Zeisel’s designs of 1983, Zsolnay produced these porcelain vessels in iridescent glazes in 1999. Collection of the Erie Art Museum.
Zeisel has created ceramic designs for Sears in the United States, Rosenthal in Germany, Mancioli in Italy, Noritake in Japan and Zsolnay in her native Hungary.
Zeisel has said she has designed 100,000 items.
“That probably is not realistic unless you count every pattern that was put on every shape,” said Moore, adding nevertheless the number is immense.
Not all of Zeisel’s designs were for ceramic products. She designed metal cookware and other household items. She designed a chromium-plated chair that, although did not go into production, received critical acclaim at the Milan Triennale in 1964.
In 1983 Zeisel received a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts and returned to Hungary. The following year a retrospective of her work entitled “Eva Zeisel: Designer for Industry” began an international tour.
Zeisel was honored in 2005 when she received the National Design Award for Lifetime Achievement from the Smithsonian’s National Design Museum.
Michael Brophy Zeisel-inspired nesting set, 1999. Eva Zeisel’s 1957 Hallcraft Century design inspired Michael Brophy to craft this hammered-sterling-silver nesting set in 1999 for The Orange Chicken LLC. Collection of the Erie Art Museum.
“Eva always says that people have a very personal relationship to their dishes as opposed to their couch or something else in the house. Eva’s philosophy is everybody appreciates beauty,” said Richards.
Zeisel splits her time between her apartment in New York City and a large old house that she has had for a long time in Rockland County, N.Y.
At the time of this article’s publication, Zeisel had not considered retiring. “When is she going to retire? She’s 102 and she’s designing,” said Richards. “I would say the fun, the playfulness and not taking herself too seriously accounts for her continuing to have design ideas. She loves to design.”
Editor’s note. Eva Zeisel passed away December 11, 2011, in New York City at the age of 105.