At 98, Zeisel's design influence comes full circle
Eva Zeisel, 98, sits with her son Jon Zeisel at a table displaying some of her creations. (Globe photo/David L. Ryan)
NEW YORK -- A few months ago, designer Eva Zeisel was contacted by Swarovski, the Austrian cut-crystal manufacturer. They asked her to submit ideas for new designs and said they'd send her out a contract so she could get started.
''I hope it arrives soon," Zeisel, who is 98, told her daughter matter-of-factly. ''I am unemployed!"
She exaggerates. The irrepressible Zeisel -- one of the 20th century's first industrial designers, and a leading force, still, in American design -- is, at nearly 100, busier, more productive, and more celebrated than ever.
Last week, Zeisel was in Canada to discuss her work with retailers. The week before she received an honorary degree at the Rhode Island School of Design. Last month she signed autographs for eight hours straight at ''Eva Zeisel Day" at the Hillwood Museum & Gardens in Washington, D.C., which has mounted a retrospective of her work.Later this year she'll receive the National Design Award forlifetime achievement from the Smithsonian's Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum.
At a time when this country seems to have a new appreciation for industrial design -- trendy Metropolitan Home magazine has just proclaimed that design is ''the new art" -- Zeisel, known for her elegant, sensuous shapes in ceramics and glass, is on a roll. Again.
Unemployed? Hardly. The Hungarian-born Zeisel has an enviable number of commissions in the works: stemware for Nambé, the chic New Mexico design firm; decorative pieces for KleinReid, the Brooklyn ceramics manufacturer; a watch and pocketbook for ACME Studio, an international product design company. There will be new Zeisel pieces in the fall at Crate & Barrel, which just introduced a line of dinnerware by Royal Stafford based on two of her 1950s designs. She has a new book out, too: ''Eva Zeisel on Design: The Magic Language of Things" (Overlook Press), about the ideas that inspire her work.
And by all accounts her influence is growing. There seems to be a new appreciation for her playful, ergonomic designs now considered relevant and hip by devotees who connect with her approach to her work, which she likes to call ''the playful search for beauty." They also share her lifelong belief that beautiful household objects are uplifting.
''I consider her the grande dame of organic modernism," says celebrated designer Jonathan Adler, whose website declares that ''handcrafted tchotchkes are life-enhancing." ''I find her tremendously inspirational."
''She's a big hero of ours," says David Reid, half of the the 30-something design team behind KleinReid, which has worked with Zeisel on porcelain and glass collections. ''There was always this fantasy that we could get to work with Eva."
''We felt a kinship with what she does," says his partner, James Klein. ''Our philosophies match really well."
Zeisel has been designing for so many years that ''I can't even add it up," she says. Her work has spanned many countries and design movements -- from the high-style art nouveau of Russia to the hard edges of the Bauhaus to the organic biomorphism of the 1940s and '50s -- and it somehow manages to capture the essence, and turbulence, of every decade. Her career has intersected with history at several points, most famously in 1936 when she was arrested in Russia and accused of conspiring to assassinate Joseph Stalin. (She spent 16 months in prison, much of it in solitary confinement, and her account of her interrogation by Russian authorities became the basis of the novel ''Darkness at Noon," by a childhood friend, Arthur Koestler.)
But over all this time, Zeisel's work has reflected a simple, sustaining premise. She believes that everyday objects in life have the ability to inspire and ''bathe a home with grace."
Making people happyWhy, Zeisel is asked, are beautiful things so important? ''Well," she says, ''I have to do a little thinking."
She thinks for, maybe, three seconds. ''You are more cheerful than when you are surrounded by ugly things," says Zeisel, who retains a Hungarian accent. ''Lovely things -- you want to touch them and you want to use them and they make you laugh. Beautiful things," declares Zeisel, ''make people happy."
There are lovely things everywhere in Eva Zeisel's apartment, scattered in creative disarray, and most of them are Zeisel designs: a set of nesting porcelain vases she created for KleinReid in 1999; a bone china tea service she did for the Lomonosov Porcelain Factory, completed two years ago and produced in Russia at the factory where she worked in the 1930s; a geometric pitcher, also from the 1930s, that she bought from a collector recently; a set of her popular 1946 Red Wing Pottery salt and pepper shakers that look like a mother and child nestled together.
Zeisel is all in white today -- white ruffled blouse, white skirt, white pearls, set off by a puff of thick white hair.
She speaks quietly and seems a bit weary in the wake of her recent marathon autograph-signing event in Washington, but she greets a visitor warmly, seated at a glass-topped table, which she designed, set with the new Eva Zeisel ivory-colored Crate & Barrel dishes.
Her apartment is so close to Columbia University that today, during Columbia's commencement ceremony, the strains of ''Pomp and Circumstance" waft in through the open window. The apartment has been in her family since 1938, she says, when they left Europe to escape the German invasion.
She was born Eva Amalia Striker in 1906 in Budapest to a wealthy intellectual family; her father was a textile merchant and her mother an early feminist and historian. Early on, her mother encouraged her artistic talents, engaging prominent artists as her tutors.
Zeisel enrolled in the Academy of Arts in Budapest, but left in 1925 to become an apprentice to a potter and then a journeyman in the Guild of Chimney Sweeps, Oven Makers, Roof Tilers, Well Diggers, and Potters, marking the beginning of a lifelong career producing objects for daily use.
Even now, ''she thinks of herself as a working woman, not an artist," says her daughter, Jean Richards.
Adventures overseasIn 1928, Zeisel took a job as an industrial designer at one of the top earthenware factories in Schramberg, Germany, then moved to Berlin in 1931. The city was teeming with Russian emigrees, and Zeisel was infatuated with their vibrant cultural life. In 1932, she adventurously decided to ''look behind the mountain to see for myself," as she said in an 1987 interview, and moved to Russia.
There was a lot of work for an enterprising ceramicist at this time, a period when the Soviet government was attempting to reestablish its factories following years of war and revolution.
Zeisel worked at a series of jobs, inspecting ceramics factories throughout the Ukraine, and designing models for mass production at the prestigious Lomonosov factory. At the precocious age of 29 she was named artistic director of the Soviet ceramics industry.
But in the early morning of May, 28, 1936, she was accused of ''counter-revolutionary activities" and devising a ''plan to organize a terrorist act against the life of Comrade Stalin," according to transcripts of her interrogation that Zeisel was recently able to obtain.
Zeisel spent 16 agonizing months in jail, a year of it in solitary confinement. Then, abruptly, she was released and expelled from the country. Emotionally spent, she went to Vienna, where she spent months recovering under the care of relatives and her friend Hans Zeisel, whom she married in 1938. That year, when the Germans invaded Austria, she left Vienna and the couple immigrated to New York.
She didn't waste a moment. On her second day in Manhattan she started looking for a job; within a year she was teaching the first course on ceramic design for mass production in the United States, at Pratt Institute.
Her output over the years has been extraordinary; she estimates she's designed 100,000 products. ''It's so wide and diversified, it's very difficult to get it systematically organized," says Pat Moore, president of the Eva Zeisel Forum, a group of Zeisel collectors working on a book that catalogs her work.
Zeisel designed metal cookware with plastic handles for
Zeisel ''is the most important designer of ceramic dinnerware in the 20th century and that is not a small niche," says Derek Ostergard, a Zeisel scholar and a decorative arts historian in New York. ''There is no one who can stack up to her in terms of variety of aesthetic expression, which was sustained over half a century; the number of countries where she worked; and the different marketplaces she designed for."
With her husband, Hans, a legal scholar and sociologist who died in 1991, Zeisel also raised two children --Jean Richards, an actor in New York and children's book author; and John Zeisel, a sociologist and president of Hearthstone Alzheimer Care, based in Woburn, which develops assisted-living treatment residences for Alzheimer's patients.
Using her creative energyDuring the 1960s and '70s, the American ceramics industry went into a decline, as Americans looked to Europe for fashionable dinnerware.
''Eva's role was diminished," says Ostergard. ''She couldn't find the markets. She never had that social unctuousness that enabled her to go out and remain a figure. She is an intellectual. She never became one of those great impresarios of design like Frank Lloyd Wright or Mies van der Rohe."
Perhaps for this reason, Eva Zeisel is not a household word outside of design circles, despite her huge output and acclaim; many of her pieces, for example, are installed in MoMA's Architecture and Design galleries, among works by Wright, Le Corbusier, and Marcel Breuer. One design dictionary of international design, published in 2004, does not even list Zeisel, although it does include ''Hello Kitty" and ''Tupperware."
But although her design work tapered off for a time, her creative energy never seemed to decline. In the mid-'60s, she demonstrated against the Vietnam War, photographing peace marches.
Zeisel turned to historical research, writing about a subject that fascinated her: the 1741 show trial of African-Americans in New York.
In the 1980s, a trip back to Hungary at the age of 77 galvanized her work again, leading to what Ostergard calls ''her third childhood," a prolific period that hasn't ended.
In recent years, she's designed furniture, wall dividers, bathroom tiles, a burial urn for Nambé, even a wooden jewelry tree that is one of several Zeisel creations -- along with goblets and furniture -- that have never been in distribution but are now, beginning this week, on a website (EvaZeiselOriginals.com) managed by her grandson Adam Zeisel, 22, who's studying marketing and entrepreneurship at Northeastern University.
These days, Zeisel works seven days a week with the aid of several young assistants. She works ''even when she is sleeping," says Olivia Barry, Zeisel's design assistant. ''She takes small resting periods, and then she is full of new ideas."
''She strikes me as having this incredible force of will, as though there is a creative engine moving her forward, even under terrible, difficult circumstances," says Karen Kettering, who curated the Zeisel retrospective at the Hillwood Museum & Gardens. Zeizel's friends like to tell the story about the time she fell in a restaurant five years ago and broke her hip. While she was sprawled on the ground waiting for help, she recognized someone connected to Pratt Institute, and exchanged business cards with her.
''I don't know the difference between working and not working," Zeisel concurred.
It starts with a sketch Much of her work is done in a single room in her apartment, which is cluttered with vestiges of her long career. She creates new designs, with the help of assistants, by sketching forms and cutting them out of paper, which are then scanned into a computer and sent to manufacturers. ''She starts with a sketch, a line that is a typical Eva curve that is so beautiful," says Olivia Barry. ''But she's a little shaky and that's where I come in. I trace over it to make a smooth line."
Sometimes, Barry says, Zeisel just uses scissors to produce a perfect form out of a piece of paper. ''We work better when she cuts. I think she feels she can go straight from her mind's eye to her hand, without worrying about the line."
A walk-in closet is stuffed with archival papers, waiting to be organized. Overstuffed binders are labeled ''early work," ''tea and coffee sets," ''Rosenthal," ''Nambé." There is a jumble of books, paper, mail, and early writings by Zeisel, including her research paper on the 1741 trials, and an anthology of poems she wrote for her children when they were little. She acknowledges she would like to see them published.
On this particular day, Zeisel seems less interested in talking about her work than she is about these poems. ''Why don't you read some of the children's poems?" she invites her guest, and listens with obvious delight as they are read aloud.
One of them begins ''Lionel lived across the river."
Who is Lionel? she is asked.
''The boy who lived across the river!" Zeisel replies.
The conversation inevitably turns toward her long career. Over all these decades, she is asked, has there been any continuous thread?
She thinks for a few seconds. ''My mood. My temperament. My playfulness. My searching," says Zeisel. ''Nothing has changed."
Then she smiles. ''Why don't you read one more poem?" she asks.