Eva Zeisel, an iconic designer whose ceramic dinnerware and giftware was part of transforming design in midcentury America, died on Dec. 30, 2011. What an amazing woman. She lived to just past 105 — and worked throughout. I have been spending time immersing myself in reading about her life and designs, and the combination of joy + intelligence shines through. On this lengthy tribute, I have gathered all the best media — videos, articles, books — as well as Eva Zeisel products still available today — onto this one page.
One of my key takeaways from my research: Eva Zeisel refused to be held hostage by any philosophical design “movements”. In fact, she rejected the square lines and geometrical tyranny of the midcentury modernists — saying instead that designers should ignore any so-called common wisdom, and do the work that speak to their hearts. Or moreover: To their hands, given that she was a potter. She also said she loved rounded lines — the “S curve” — because she herself was a little bit… chubby. What a lovely woman. What a pip!
Read on for my comprehensive online guide to the life, work and products still available today of Eva Zeisel.
To start, from the New York Times’ obituary:
Ms. Zeisel (pronounced ZY-sel), along with designers like Mary and Russel Wright and Charles and Ray Eames, brought the clean, casual shapes of modernist design into middle-class American homes with furnishings that encouraged a postwar desire for fresh, less formal styles of living.
“Museum,” the porcelain table service that brought Ms. Zeisel national notice, was commissioned by its manufacturer, 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.
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.
Above: A five-minute video about Eva designing at age 93. This is STUNNING. JUST STUNNING!
The playful search for beauty was man’s first activity… all useful qualities and all material qualities were developed from the playful search for beauty… The word playful is a necessary aspect of our work, we have to make, produce lovely things throughout all of life.. and this for me is now 75 years….
… I used my work to fuel my curiosity…
Above: In 2002, filmaker Jyll Johnstone made what looks to be a comprehensive documentary about Zeisel’s life: Throwing Curves — Eva Zeisel. Premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, it’s an hour long. Here’s a description… and you can buy it here.
… People like us were never poor, we just had no money…
Above: Jeremy Bales did a shorter, 5-minute video, Eva Zeisel – Distinguished by Design, in 2008. If you watch just one video right away — watch this one.
…I’m better than before because i have so much experience… And I’m going to live a long time and still design on and on. Designing is pleasure for me.”
Above: She worked on a ceramic tile line with Trikeenan — the video above is lovely.
Eva Zeisel Forum
The Eva Zeisel Forum is an amazing treasure trove of information about Zeisel’s life and work. Their site includes an extensive links page, which I will not try to replicate, but which a serious Zeisel scholar or collector should be sure to consult. They also have what looks to be a definitive chronology / timeline of her live and work — nicely done!
More good stories about Eva Zeisel
- Eva’s grandson Adam runs the company that sells a number of Eva’s designs. Their site — Eva Zeisel Originals — also has a good links page. And, you can read more about Eva and see more photos on the site.
- A short but excellent interview with the Wall Street Journal in July 2011, after Leucos USA announced a new line of lighting based on Zeisel’s design (it does not appear that the lighting is available yet):
Says Eva: ”In general, the inspiration for my work has been the human body—belly buttons, which I used quite often—nature and the Hungarian folk art of my youth… Modernism, rebelling against the ornament of the 19th century, limited the vocabulary of the designer. Modernism emphasized straight lines, eliminating the expressive S curve.” -
- Similarly, the LA Times mentions in its obituary:
In 2005, then-98-year-old Zeisel chuckled as she told a National Public Radio interviewer that she gravitated to curves “probably because I consist myself of curves instead of straight lines, meaning I’m a little bit fat.”
- And I quite like this, from Jed Perl, on Orange Chicken (a retailer)’s website:
Part of what has always been so appealing about Zeisel’s work is her iconoclastic view of what modern design-and, indeed, modern life-is all about. She celebrates the voluptuous and fantastical. She gives us a winking, twinkling, seductive modernity. She’s not afraid of our half-submerged rococo or baroque impulses. She believes that even the form that follows the function can dance a little gavotte.”
- Story on Forbes: The Life of Eva Zeisel and the Absurdity of Other People’s Rules. Right on, sister!
- John Foster of The Design Observer writes about visiting Zeisel in mid-2011, includes unique photos taken at her home.
- Royal Stafford, which manufactures her Century design today, has a good timeline.
- The New York Times — quoted above — the NYT also provides a pretty definitive writeup.
- The Los Angeles Times – also a nice long story:
All my work is mother-and-child,” Zeisel once said. Often critical of Modernism despite being one of its towering figures, the designer said she simply tried to recapture the “magic language of things.” And: ”By her own estimation, Zeisel had designed 100,000 pieces of tableware, in styles as diverse as Bauhaus, Russian Art Nouveau and her best-known approach, organic modern.”
- The Washington Post – “… She resisted being characterized as an artist. ‘Art has more ego to it than what I do,’ she once told the New Yorker.”
Eva Zeisel products still manufactured for sale today
- Crate and Barrel’s Eva Zeisel “Century” dinnerware was originally designed in 1952, C&B says. The New York Times said it is based on one of her vintage Hallcraft designs. $268 for a 20-piece set. But note: READ the REVIEWS.
- Eva Zeisel Originals — run by her grandson Adam — sells a variety of furniture and collectibles, including the coffee table above.
- Klein Reid collaborated with Zeisel and sells a number of beautiful pieces — like the sensuous 11-piece centerpiece, above — manufactured today.
- Orange Chicken also began a collaboration with with Zeisel in 1998, and offers a unique selection — including awesome looking room dividers.
- The Rug Company sells three Eva Zeisel designs. They asked her a few questions. I love this:
The Rug Company: What does the word quality mean to you?
Eva Zeisel: Quality means having a purpose forever.
- Unica Home offers a variety of products, including these pretty goblets made by Nambe.
- Picture frames from WexelArt — designed by Eva when she was 104.
“Eva Zeisel on Design” is by the great lady herself. I LOVED IT.
And (update Feb. 26, 2012), Eva Zeisel’s Soviet Prison Memoir has just been released:
In conclusion: Eva Zeisel: A life, well lived. <3