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Eva Zeisel: A Master of Survival

By Katarina V. Posch November 20, 2012

Katarina V. Posch

Eva Zeisel (1906–2011)

Design scholar Katarina V. Posch (New York)


Product/industrial designer Eva Zeisel (New York)

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For this guest post, the daughter of the late Eva Zeisel, Jean Richards, asked design scholar and family friend Katarina V. Posch to write an appreciation of Zeisel, on the occasion of the release of the e-book Eva Zeisel: A Soviet Prison Memoir (2012). Compiled by Richards and Brent C. Brolin, the book presents details of the life of the remarkable designer, from whom Designers & Books had the pleasure of receiving a book list (a single book) in 2011. — SK


Eva Zeisel, “Museum” coffee pot for Castleton China, 1942–45

Eva Zeisel, who is best known for the tableware which is made, used and cherished all over the world, passed away one year ago, on December 30, 2011. She would have reached 106 on November 13 this year—and no doubt, would have been busy turning out new designs as she did with great energy throughout her entire life.

Beginning as a designer of tableware, Eva Zeisel quickly developed a personal language independent of trends. Never a follower, Zeisel rejected both the extreme focus on function that suppressed any emotional or social connotations, which was proposed by the 1920s Bauhaus, as well as the tendency in mid-century America to promote the easy-going lifestyle of the new suburban middle class. Eva Zeisel worked for people of her own kind: well-bred, cosmopolitan, avant-garde, and with a high sense of elegance.

This recipe led to classics like the “Museum” line for Castleton China (exhibited in a one-woman show at MoMA in 1946) to “Tomorrow’s Classic” for Hallcraft in 1952, which is still in production today. Zeisel’s hallmark, a highly sensual S-curve, dominates the design of the Silhouette glassware for Bryce Brothers as well her ceramic wall divider for Mancioli, both made in the 1950s. This formal language spanned the rest of her productive life, from furniture and floor and wall treatments to decorative objects.

“Belly Button” glazed porcelain space dividers, made for the Italian company Mancioli in 1958.

Eva Zeisel’s life, however, surpasses that of just a successful designer. She lived an extraordinary life of more than a century through a world of change—from an imperial culture through the nascent republics and the communist utopia into the land of the free. Though she claimed to have been politically disinterested in her youth, history forced itself upon her in a dramatic way.

Born in 1906 and raised in the Austro-Hungarian Empire as Eva Stricker, she grew up within a multicultural environment. Budapest and Vienna were the two capitals of an empire that dozens of different ethnicities called home. As a natural result, Eva eventually spoke Hungarian, German, French, and Russian with the same ease and fluency with which she would later perfect English and other languages.

Eva Zeisel: A Soviet Prison Memoir, compiled by Jean Richards and Brent C. Brolin, 2012 (e-book)

Her curiosity for life and for her then young profession as a designer brought Eva to new places—from the remoteness of a potter’s village in the Black Forest to the intellectually vibrant city of Berlin in Weimar Germany. Her studio became a center of artistic and intellectual encounters, and she certainly enjoyed her social life more than ever. She had admirers and could have settled easily for a life of comfort, stimulation, and entertainment. However, Eva’s curiosity drove her to leave the excitements of 1920s Berlin behind to enter yet another adventure: that of the just emerging Soviet Russia.

The contrast could not have been more dramatic, from parties of the swinging 1920s to the workers of rural Soviet industries. As we learn from her just published autobiographical notes of this period, compiled as an e-book by Jean Richards and Brent C. Brolin (Eva Zeisel: A Soviet Prison Memoir, 2012), Eva had to pay dearly for her stellar rise to the top of Soviet ceramic production by serving time in Stalinist prison for capital treason. It is a miracle that she not only survived this time of inhumane endurance, but that she came out even stronger than before.

Eva Stricker (later Zeisel) in her Berlin apartment, early 1930s (left) and at the Dulevo ceramics factory, Soviet Union, mid-1930s (right) 
Eva Zeisel’s yellow tea set for Dulevo in the Soviet Union, mid-1930s

That Eva Zeisel was a remarkable woman is well-known to everyone familiar with her work, her biography, or to those who had the honor of knowing her personally. Even so, the story of her life in a Stalinist cell makes all of her other achievements fade into the background. This is a person who stood up against a totalitarian administration notorious for unfair practices and quick executions, kept her sanity in the face of psychological torture and false promises, and who found ways to remain true to herself in order not to lose herself. Zeisel turned her prison cell alternately into a gym for physical exercise and an imaginary salon full of elegant furniture and people. And she turned her thoughts of her thousands of lonely and angst-filled hours into poetry—filled with wit, humor, and breathtaking openness. Rather than falling prey to sentimental longings Zeisel relied upon her creativity, as the ultimate tool for survival.

Eva Zeisel, “Tulip” glass goblet, 2001

I had the great pleasure of developing a relationship with Eva in her late age. Being of Viennese background myself and a professor at Pratt Institute, where Eva taught for the first 15 years of her life in the United States, our connection was instantaneous. Her interest in the world of design never ceased, and she always impressed me with her sharp mind and pointed questions. However, I was most moved when Eva asked me to read her own poems to her, written in her second native language, German (Eva had lost most of her eyesight by this time). These were the poems that she had composed during her incarceration in a Soviet prison. Having the author of these heart-wrenching words sitting in front of me in her Biedermeier chair, elegantly dressed in a white blouse and purple velvet skirt, was an overwhelming experience of two extreme opposite worlds, seemingly overlapping.

Yet, this was the very Eva Zeisel who emerged from the profound chaos of political upheaval in Europe with such a strong will that she would live another 64 years. Zeisel spent the remainder of her rich life in the United States, where she once again had to reinvent herself in a foreign land quite different from any of the numerous European cultures she had known. From the 1950s onward, Zeisel created a niche for herself as a successful designer, wife, and mother, and the hostess and leader of an expatriate community that brought together creatives and intellectuals from the European regions she once called home. Born at the beginning of the 20th century and raised in an old-world empire, Eva took her multicultural upbringing and sense of social connection, and forged her way through the overwhelming frontier of postwar America, following the severe privations of Stalinist prison. Zeisel’s profound immersion in joy and grief gave her a unique ability to turn a potential grudge into a universal embrace of world-citizens. Eva Zeisel’s long life, marked by the benefits of a cosmopolitan upbringing and by the suffering of political upheaval, will continue to inspire because of her boundless human empathy, and the passionate creativity that kept her in the pilot’s seat throughout her life.


Note: All Images courtesy of the Eva Zeisel Archive.

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