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Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful.
– William Morris
There are only a few artists working in the ceramics medium who have become internationally recognized.
Eva Zeisel is one of the few, an industrial ceramics designer whose work is included in the permanent collections of the Metropolitan Museum, the British Museum, and many other museums around the world.
In 2005, Zeisel was honored with the Lifetime Achievement award from the Cooper-Hewett National Design Museum, as well as the Pratt Legends award and awards from the Industrial Designers Society of America and Alfred University. She was an honorary member of the Royal Society of Industrial Designers, and received honorary degrees from Parsons (New School), Rhode Island School of Design, the Royal College of Art, and the Hungarian University of the Arts.
She also received the two highest civilian awards from the government of Hungary, the place of her birth and childhood.
Zeisel called herself “a maker of useful things.”
Eva Striker was born in Budpest, Hungary in 1906. Her family were wealthy, highly educated and assimilated Jews. Her mother, Laura Polányi Striker, a historian, was the first woman to get a PhD from the University of Budapest.
At 17, Eva entered Budapest’s Magyar Képzőművészeti Akadémia (Hungarian Royal Academy of Fine Arts) as a painter, but felt the need of a more practical and financially stable profession, so she apprenticed herself to Jakob Karapancsik, the last pottery master in the medieval guild system. From him she learned ceramics from the ground up, and became the first woman to qualify as a journeyman in the Hungarian Guild of Chimney Sweeps, Oven Makers, Roof Tilers, Well Diggers and Potters.
By 1928, she was the designer for the Schramberger Majolikafabrik in Germany, where she worked for two years creating many playfully geometric designs for dinnerware, tea sets, vases, inkwells and other ceramic items, often inspired by modern architecture. In 1930, she moved to Berlin, designing for the Carstens factories.
After almost two years in Berlin, she made the fateful decision to visit Soviet Russia, and found employment opportunities in the Russian ceramics industry — inspecting factories in the Ukraine as well as designing for the Lomonosov and Dulevo factories. At the age of 29, Zeisel was named artistic director of the Soviet china and glass industry.
On May 26, 1936, while living in Moscow, Zeisel was arrested, falsely accused of participating in an assassination plot against Joseph Stalin. She was in prison for 16 months, 12 of which were spent in solitary confinement, but in September 1937, Zeisel was expelled and deported to Vienna, Austria. Some of her prison experiences became the basis for Darkness at Noon, the anti-Stalinist novel written by her childhood friend, Arthur Koestler.
In Vienna, her future husband, Hans Zeisel, helped recover her from her ordeal. He would later be a noted legal scholar, statistician, and professor at the University of Chicago.
A few months after her arrival, the Nazis invaded Austria. She took one of the last trains out, meeting Hans in England, where they married. They decided to go to America. When she and her husband left England, they had $67 between them.
In the U.S., Zeisel had to reestablish her reputation as a designer. Beginning in 1937, she taught at Pratt Institute in New York, and created designs for the Bay Ride Specialty Company and Stratoware (a rare, short-lived line make for Sears).
In 1942, Zeisel was commissioned by the Museum of Modern Art and Castleton China to design a set of modern, porcelain, undecorated 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 to June, 1946, and was the first one-woman exhibition at MoMA. The exhibit was received with wide praise, but war-time constraints delayed mass production until 1949. Zeisel’s dishes, known as “Museum” and “Castleton White,” were manufactured and sold over the next several decades. Zeisel credited this commission with establishing her reputation in the US, remarking that, “it made me an accepted first-rate designer rather than a run-of-the-mill designer.”
Zeisel’s “Museum” tea service
The success of “Museum” brought Zeisel to the attention of Red Wing Potteries, for whom she designed the always popular “Town and Country” in response to their request for dishes as “Greenwich-Villagey” as possible.
Pieces from Ziesel’s “Town and Country” collection
Zeisel also created two lines for Hall China Company in the 1950s, her very popular full line of dinnerware, “Tomorrow’s Classic,” and “Century.”
In the 1980s, a 50-year retrospective exhibit of her work organized by Musée des Arts Décoratifs and the Smithsonian Institution traveled in the U.S., Europe and Russia. In 2004, a significant retrospective exhibition “Eva Zeisel: The Playful Search for Beauty” was organized by the Knoxville Museum of Art.
From 2005 to 2007 the Erie Art Museum, Erie, PA, mounted the long-term exhibition “Eva Zeisel: The Shape of Life.”
On December 10, 2006, The Mingei International Museum in Balboa Park, San Diego, opened a major centenary retrospective exhibit “Eva Zeisel: Extraordinary Designer at 100,” showing her designs from Schramberg (1928) through to current designs for Nambe, Chantal, Eva Zeisel Originals, The Orange Chicken and others (2006). The show ran through August, 2007. In the same year, the Pratt Institute Gallery also organized an Exhibition celebrating her centenary.
Eva Zeisel died December 30, 2011, in New York City, at the age of 105.