fb-pixel Skip to main content

Eva Zeisel, ceramic artist and ‘humane’ designer, 105

Brent C. Brolin

Eva Zeisel, a ceramic artist whose elegant, eccentric designs for dinnerware in the 1940s and ’50s helped to revolutionize how Americans set their tables, died Friday at 105 in New City, N.Y.

Her death was confirmed by her daughter, Jean Richards.

Ms. Zeisel, along with designers like Mary and Russel Wright and Charles and Ray Eames, brought the clean, casual shapes of modernist design into middle-class homes.

“Museum,’’ the porcelain table service that brought Ms. Zeisel national notice, was commissioned by its maker, 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.

Advertisement



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, 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, ovenmakers, 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 Decoratifs et Industriels Modernes - the source of the term Art Deco - which exhibited work by leading new designers like Le Corbusier 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.

Advertisement



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 maker 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.

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 at once contemporary and lyrical.

By 1935, while working in Moscow as artistic director of the Russian republic’s china industry. On May 28, 1936, she was arrested, falsely accused by a colleague of conspiring to assassinate Stalin. She was imprisoned 16 months an experience that Arthur Koestler, a childhood friend, drew upon in writing a celebrated 1941 novel, “Darkness at Noon.’’

Advertisement



In 1937, Ms. Zeisel was released without explanation and then 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 she had met in Berlin. They were married and immigrated to the United States that year.

Ms. Zeisel put herself in touch with US ceramics makers 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 New York City, where she presented ceramics as industrial design, not craft as it was traditionally taught.

Ms. Zeisel’s daughter, Jean, was born in 1940, a son, John, in 1944. Motherhood opened her eyes again. Dinner services took on familial relationships between individual pieces, with shapes that complement one another rather than repeat themselves. “Town & Country,’’ designed in the ’40s, has salt and pepper shakers that nestle, one into the other, like 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 leaves three grandchildren.