Eva Zeisel

Product/Industrial Designer / United States /

(1906–2011). Born in Budapest in 1906, Eva Stricker entered the Royal Academy of Fine Arts at age 17, intending to become a painter, but her mother prevailed upon her to learn some trade whereby she could earn a living, the world of fine art being chancy. So Eva apprenticed herself to a traditional potter and began learning her trade.

The life of the apprentice in any of the trades was not always easy or pleasant, but Eva persisted and soon graduated to journeyman status. Just a year after that her work was displayed at the Philadelphia Sesquicentennial, where she won an honorable mention. By then she was working as a designer in the Kispester Factory in Budapest.

She then advertised in the trade papers that she was a qualified journeyman seeking a position and received several responses. When asked recently why she chose Hamburg, she did she replied, “Because it was the farthest from home.” She wanted to travel and widen her experience of the world and at the same time increase her skills. After working in Hamburg she accepted a job as designer for the Schramberger Majolika Fabrik, in Schramberg, Germany. There she acquired skills in all phases of industrial production and became one of the first (and certainly the first woman) to move the ceramic arts into contemporary mass production.

She later moved to Berlin, where she designed for Carstens. In 1932 she went to Russia on vacation in order to experience the new artistic and social movements there, as did many other idealistic young artists and intellectuals. As an experienced industrial designer she was soon offered a position assisting in the modernization of the ceramic industry, where her creativity and dynamism stood her well.

She traveled to many parts of Russia in order to understand and coordinate efforts to create a central manufactory that would make products for the homes of the everyday citizenry. Her efforts were recognized, and she was soon transferred to the Lomonosov factory in Leningrad (the former Imperial Porcelain Factory). This eventually led to her appointment as Artistic Director for the Porcelain and Glass Industries for the entire country.

In 1936, however, she was caught up in one of the Stalinist purges, falsely accused of plotting against the life of Stalin. She was imprisoned in the NKVD prison for 16 months, most of the time in solitary confinement. She was subjected to early forms of brainwashing and the constant possibility that each day would be her last. (Arthur Koestler, a lifelong friend, based his book Darkness at Noon on some of her prison experiences. See also Eva Zeisel: A Soviet Prison Memoir, 2012.)

Then one day she was unexpectedly led out of her cell to what she feared was to be her execution, but was instead put on a train to Austria in the clothes she was standing in. Just as the reason for her imprisonment was never really known, so is the reason for her release.

Once in Austria, she left on the last train out at the time of the Anschluss and went to England, where she married Hans Zeisel, who had waited seven years for her. In 1938 they went to New York where they settled permanently.

In 1939 she created a course in ceramic arts as industrial design at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, where she taught until 1952.

One of her first designs in the U. S. was for Sears, Roebuck. Later, she designed for Hall China, Red Wing China, Castleton China, Norleans Meito (Japan), Western Stoneware, Hyalyn, Phillip Rosenthal (Germany), Mancioli (Italy), Federal Glass, Heisey Glass, Noritake (Japan), Nikkon Toki (Japan), and many others.

Eva Zeisel received many honors for her outstanding achievements, beginning with her selection in 1942 by The Museum of Modern Art, New York (MoMA), to design a line of fine porcelain dinnerware for the Castleton China Company of Pennsylvania. The designs were not completed and produced until 1945, due to wartime restriction, but were presented at a one-woman show at MoMA in 1946.

  • In 1982 she received a senior award from the National Endowment for the Arts and was the subject of a touring exhibition sponsored by the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service and the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Montreal, in 1984.
  • In 1988, Zeisel was awarded an honorary doctorate by the Royal College of Arts, London, and in 1991 she was awarded an honorary doctorate by Parsons The New School for Design, New York.
  • 1998 – received the Binns Metal from the New York State College of Ceramics, Alfred University NY, for Excellence in Ceramic Art
  • 2000 – received the Industrial Design Society of America Bronze Apple Award
  • 2001 – made an Honorary Member of the American Ceramics Society
  • 2001 – a street in Schramberg , Germany designated EvaZeiselStrasse
  • 2002 – given the Living Legend Award at Pratt Institute, New York
  • 2002 – received the Russel Wright Award for Design Excellence
  • 2004 – awarded the Middle Cross of the Order of Merit of the Republic of Hungary
  • 2004 – awarded an honorary doctorate from the University of Craft and Design, Budapest, Republic of Hungary
  • 2004 – named an Honorary Royal Designer by the Royal Designers for Industry, London, a part of the Royal Society of Arts (the highest award given to a non-British subject)
  • 2005 – given an honorary doctorate from the Rhode Island School of Design
  • 2005 – received the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Award for Lifetime Achievement, followed by
  • 2006 – luncheon at the White House with Laura Bush
  • 2006 – received a Lifetime Achievement Award from Bon Appetit Magazine

Eva Zeisel’s works are in the permanent collections of the Brohan Museum, Germany; the British Museum; The Victoria and Albert Museum, London; the Musée des Arts Décoratifs, Montreal; The Museum of Modern Art, New York, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the Brooklyn Museum, as well as the Dallas, Knoxville, Milwaukee, Hillwood (Washington, D.C.), Erie (NY), and Mingei International (San Diego) museums in the United States, among others. She has had retrospective exhibitions in dozens of museums in the U. S. and abroad and lectured widely during her lifetime.

Her recent works, some no longer in production, include designs for Zsolnay Factory in Pecs, Hungary, as well as the American firms of Nambé, Orange Chicken Gallery, MGlass, and Acme Studios. The Museum of Modern Art, the Metropolitan Museum, and more recently, the Neue Galerie, have issued new releases of some of her early designs in new glazes and colors, always supervised by Zeisel. To celebrate her 100th birthday, Zeisel designed her first tea kettle, for Chantal, of Texas. Zeisel’s current work includes offerings by KleinReid, Design Within Reach, The Rug Company, Neue Galerie, Gump’s, Trikeenan Tileworks, Eva Zeisel Originals (www.EvaZeiselOriginals.com), WexelArt, and Royal Stafford (Century Classic, carried by Crate and Barrel and 101 Dinnerware).

A book about Zeisel’s work, Eva Zeisel: The Playful Search for Beauty, by Lucie Young (Chronicle Books), was published in 2003.

Eva Zeisel died on December 30, 2011.

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