Sunday, January 1, 2012

Deceased--Eva Zeisel

Eva Zeisel
November 13th, 1906 to December 30th, 2011

"Eva Zeisel dies at 105; ceramic artist and designer known for her tableware"

Few who admired Eva Zeisel's often-abstract designs knew that she had been imprisoned as a young woman in the Soviet Union and was later forced to flee Nazi-occupied Austria.


Claudia Luther

January 1st, 2012

Los Angeles Times

Eva Zeisel, one of the most influential industrial designers of the 20th century who created lyrical yet practical tableware and ceramics, has died. She was 105.

Zeisel, whose deceptively simple designs first became popular in the 1940s and are still sold at major design outlets, died Friday in New York City, it was announced on her website.

"Eva Zeisel took industrial design and made it more human and sensual. She trusts that a good curve is enough," David Reid of design studio KleinReid, which features her work, told The Times in 2005.

Few who admired her often-abstract designs knew that, during her long and adventurous life, Zeisel had been imprisoned as a young woman in the Soviet Union and was later forced to flee Nazi-occupied Austria.

In 1938, she immigrated to the United States with her husband, Hans Zeisel, and within a few years was designing a fine set of chinaware for the Museum of Modern Art in New York and Castleton China. The pieces, and Zeisel, were the focus of a MOMA exhibit in 1946.

The British Museum in London has in its collection her colorful mix-and-match "Town and Country" dinnerware first made by Red Wing Pottery in Minnesota in the 1940s. The salt and pepper shakers from that set — with their plump, anthropomorphic bodies curving toward each other — are iconic. Her vintage designs have long been collectibles.

By her own estimation, Zeisel had designed 100,000 pieces of tableware, in styles as diverse as Bauhaus, Russian Art Nouveau and her best-known approach, organic modern.

An exhibit in 2007 at the Craft and Folk Art Museum in Los Angeles, "Eva Zeisel: Extraordinary Designer at 100," included a recent collaboration with retailer Crate & Barrel based on her curvaceous designs from the 1950s.

Many who fancied her vast array of plates, cups, vases and other objects enough to put them on the dinner table did not know her name. The designer appeared untroubled by her relative anonymity, focusing instead on "the user" who was "my good friend," Zeisel said in 2004 in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

"I'm always thinking about my friend, someone to whom I'm giving my loveliness, my friendship and my shapes," she said.

Those elegant pieces often appeared to have human qualities, particularly in the way they tended to curve and nestle. "All my work is mother-and-child," Zeisel once said. Often critical of Modernism despite being one of its towering figures, the designer said she simply tried to recapture the "magic language of things."

In 2005, then-98-year-old Zeisel chuckled as she told a National Public Radio interviewer that she gravitated to curves "probably because I consist myself of curves instead of straight lines, meaning I'm a little bit fat."

Eva Amalia Striker was born Nov. 13, 1906, in Budapest, Hungary, into a prosperous Jewish family. Her father was a textile manufacturer.

She studied painting at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Budapest but soon turned to something she thought more practical: pottery. She apprenticed in her home city and later worked in Hamburg and Berlin.

After becoming interested in Russian art and culture, she moved to Ukraine. She quickly rose through the ranks of pottery design and production in the Soviet Union, and by age 29 was art director at the state-run Porcelain and Glass Industries.

Her life took a terrifying turn in 1936, when she was arrested on trumped-up charges that she had plotted to assassinate Soviet dictator Josef Stalin. She was imprisoned for 16 months, spending most of it in solitary confinement. Her confinement included torture and brainwashing, and became the basis for her friend Arthur Koestler's stark 1941 novel about totalitarianism, "Darkness at Noon."

"You never knew when the door would open and you would be shot," Zeisel said many years later. "So you learned to rule out the future."

When she was released, Zeisel later said, she thought the guards were taking her to be executed. She arrived in Vienna just six months before Hitler annexed Austria and then fled to London, where she married Hans Zeisel, a lawyer she had known in Vienna. The couple arrived in the U.S. with $64.

In New York, Zeisel pored over design periodicals at the library and contacted a magazine editor, who connected her with a china factory that hired Zeisel to create a set of dishes. She did so overnight and earned $100.

She soon got other jobs, including teaching ceramics at New York City's Pratt Institute, where she developed one of the first industrial design courses for ceramics in the United States. She later taught at the Rhode Island School of Design.

When MOMA asked her to design a set of dishes in 1942, Zeisel created what is now considered a classic — an all-white set unlike anything then being produced in this country.

"You would have expected flowers or some kind of gilt decoration or some kind of scrolled handle," Karen Kettering, who curated a traveling Zeisel exhibit, told NPR in 2005. "Instead what you have are very simple forms and everything slightly rounded," an effect that was "a very modern way of being formal."

Zeisel went on to design for such major manufacturers as Hall China, Federal Glass and Noritake. She also did pieces for Sears and Roebuck.

During the 1960s, Zeisel's aesthetic went somewhat out of favor. She all but abandoned her work, turning to writing and protesting the Vietnam War.

In the 1980s, she returned to product design when an art museum in Montreal mounted an exhibition of her work and midcentury designers in general were enjoying a comeback. Even after passing the century mark, she remained active and was continually delighted by the ubiquity of her creations.

"When I met my designs in the market of a remote village in the West Indies, or in the airport restaurant in Zurich, I felt like the mother of many well-behaved children," she once wrote.

When asked in 2001 how she could have left behind the grimness of her imprisonment to design such beautiful objects, she told Metropolis magazine: "Well, you come out so pleased with life. Everything is unexpectedly colorful."

She maintained a country home and workshop in Rockland County, N.Y., and also had homes in New York City and Chicago, where her husband was a prominent law and sociology professor at the University of Chicago. He died at 86 in 1992.

Zeisel was the subject of the 2002 documentary "Throwing Curves" and the 2003 biography "Eva Zeisel" by Lucie Young.

In her early 90s, Zeisel conceded that the world did not need "all these dishes."

"They're cold, they're hard, and we have to wash them," she told Newsday in 1997, then added playfully: "But paper plates will never bring a family together," or "teach children to say, 'May I be excused?' Obviously, it's a cultural need, and it's the designer who makes them festive."

Zeisel's survivors include a daughter, Jean Richards; a son, John; and three grandchildren.

"Eva Zeisel, Ceramic Artist and Designer, Dies at 105"


William L. Hamilton

December 30th, 2011

The New York Times

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 D√©coratifs 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, David Klein and James 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.”

Eva Zeisel [Wikipedia]

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