Above Photo: Pitchers from the ‘Town and Country’ line produced by Red Wing Pottery in 1946.
“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.”
– Eva Zeisel
Another pioneer is ceramist and industrial designer Eva Zeisel. Her’s is a remarkable life. Born in Budapest, Hungary in 1906 into a wealthy and intellectual family, her mother, Laura Polanyi Striker, was the first woman to get a PhD from the University of Budapest. Eva’s uncles, Karl Polanyi, noted sociologist and economist, and Michael Polanyi, the physical chemist and philosopher of science, were also very well known and were but a few of the scientific and intellectual minds that surrounded Eva in her childhood.
Despite growing up surrounded by the influences of logical and pragmatic minds, Eva was drawn toward the world of art and at 17 she entered Budapest’s Royal Hungarian Academy of Fine Arts to study painting. Without the financial support of her family, Eva took an apprenticeship with Jakob Karapancsik, the last pottery master of the medieval guild system. From Karapancsik Eva learned ceramics from the ground up and after earning her journeyman’s certification, becoming the first woman to qualify as Journeyman in the (rather diverse) Hungarian Guild of Chimney Sweeps, Oven Makers, Roof Tilers, Well Diggers, and Potters, Eva found work in Germany.
In 1928 Eva began working for Schramberger ceramic works in the Black Forest region of Germany. With designs influenced by modern architecture Eva experimented with playful geometric forms that would go on to become her signature style in later years. In 1930 Eva moved to Berlin and began designing for Carstens. At the time Berlin was a hotbed of social, artistic, and intellectual activity and Eva took it all in with joyous abandon. However in 1932, with a seeming desire to always explore new paths, Eva, now 26, decided to visit Soviet Russia; a visit that would last for 5 years.
In Russia Eva began working for the Soviet ceramics industry and quickly rose up the ranks and became an inspector for factories in the Ukraine as well as designing her own pieces for the Lomonosov and Dulevo ceramic houses. Shortly after Eva was named artistic director of the Soviet china and glass industry. But things soon took a frightening turn. On May 26, 1936, while living in Moscow, Eva was arrested. She had been falsely accused of participating in an assassination plot against Joseph Stalin and was imprisoned for 16 months, of which 12 were spent in solitary confinement. In prison Eva experienced the execution of her co-inmates and prepared herself to meet the same fate. But Eva survived. Escaping Stalin’s police state she found herself in Vienna and it was there she re-established contact with her future husband Hans Zeisel, a noted legal scholar, statistician, and professor at the University of Chicago. A few months after her arrival in Vienna the Nazis invaded and Eva found herself once again on the run. Escaping to England she and Hans were reunited and were married before sailing for the United States with only $67 between them.
Upon arriving in the US Eva found herself having to completely re-establish herself as a designer. In 1937 she began teaching at the Pratt Institute in New York, and designed for the Bay Ride Specialty Company and Stratoware. A big break came for Eva when in 1942 she was commissioned by the Museum of Modern Art and Castleton China to design a set of modern china that would be worthy of exhibition at MoMA, and be produced for sale by Castleton. The resulting exhibition, “New Shapes in Modern China, Designed by Eva Zeisel,” ran from April 17 to June 9, 1946, and was the first one-woman exhibition at MoMA. The exhibition received wide praise but because of wartime supply restrictions the series, known as ‘Museum’ and ‘Castleton White,’ was not produced until 1949. But despite the delay the series was immensely popular when released with Zeisel herself remarking that, “It made me an accepted first-rate designer rather than a run-of-the-mill designer.” Following this success Eva designed a line for Red Wing Potteries creating the playfully eccentric and successful ‘Town and Country’ series.
Eva’s designs are not ‘precious objects’ but were made for everyday use. Her sensuous, curvilinear forms reflect the human body and this organic approach to modernism is perhaps a reaction to the Bauhaus aesthetics popular in her early career. Many of Eva’s works are designed in ‘family groups’ with pieces that nest together creating modular designs that also function to save space.
During the 1960’s and 1970’s Eva Zeisel stopped designing and focused on her writing on the subject of American history. But in the 1980’s she returned and designed pieces for companies such as Klein Reid, Nambé, The Orange Chicken, Design Within Reach, and others. Today Eva’s grandson, Adam Zeisel, runs the successful EvaZeiselOriginals.com which sells both newer and classic designs by Zeisel.
Eva raised two children with husband Hans – her son John Zeisel and daughter Jean Richards. In the documentary Throwing Curves: Eva Zeisel it is noted that Eva and Hans had a stormy relationship with both having dominant personalities which often led to “a collision of force fields.” Hans would later take a Job in Chicago as a professor, but Eva would call New York home for the rest of her long life, dying on December 30, 2011 at 105 years of age. Eva was an indefatigable pioneer and survivor.
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Great article! I hadn’t realized how ahead of her time she was with her designs. Those from the late ’20s and early 30’s look like what others were doing in the 50’s. Remarkable!