A tribute to Eva Zeisel

The ceramicist, industrial designer and Rug Company collaborator Eva Zeisel died last Friday, aged 105. Describing herself as a ‘maker of useful things’, Eva’s work spanned nine decades, several continents and comprises everything from furniture and ceramics to rugs and dinnerware. Her style could be described as an organic approach to modernism – functional but softer than the rigid Bauhaus aesthetics that were popular in her early career. Famously unconstrained by convention or trend, her innate strength and playful spirit brought a warmth and humanity to early twentieth-century minimalist design, which according to James Klein of Brooklyn-based ceramicists KleinReid, ‘is still totally in tune with the current mood.’

Eva’s life was as extraordinary as her work. Hungarian by birth, she trained as a painter but when pressured by her mother (a historian and staunch feminist) to learn a trade, quickly apprenticed herself to a local potter. Her fist major stylistic influence was modernist architecture and the villas of Le Corbusier and she recalls her ceramic inkwells ‘began to look like tiny modern villas’. She went on to work in ceramic factories in Germany and Russia, where she enjoyed the ornate designs of Russian imperial porcelain, later claiming that the ‘clean lines of modern design could be combined with classic shapes’. (More colourfully, she was also falsely accused and imprisoned for plotting against Stalin).

Eva Zeisel with her Dimpled Spindle rug. Portrait by Talisman Brolin.

In 1939, she moved to New York where she was invited to develop a course at The Pratt Institute to teach ceramics as industrial design, not as a handicraft as it was traditionally taught. She was the first designer in America to produce an all-white Modernist dinner service – an event celebrated by a solo exhibition at MOMA in 1946. This began the introduction of curvaceous forms into Eva’s work: inspired by the human body, Eva used abstractions of natural forms such as birds, breasts, baby’s bottoms and belly buttons to encapsulate her belief that ‘designs should communicate with one another and engage us through their friendly zoomorphic shapes’.

 

In its ceramic form, her iconic belly button shape was originally manufactured as a room divider in the 1950s. However, it was one of three designs that Eva sent off to The Rug Company. ‘We had always wanted to try rugs’, recalls Jean Richards, Eva’s daughter, ‘and then The Rug Company catalogue turned up in the studio, so we took it as a sign!’ Eva gathered original artwork (brightly-painted wooden boards) for Fish, Lacy X and the famous belly buttons (or Dimpled Spindle as it later became known), packaged them up and sent them to London – it was the first time in her career that Eva had sent anything ‘off cold’. She received a phone call three days later. Christopher Sharp maintains that the intriguing package from New York contained the most ‘forward-looking’ designs he’d seen for some time; ‘they were brilliant, so contemporary and fresh and she turned out to be 100 years old – I was astonished!’.

 

Eva’s legacy at The Rug Company lives on in the form of three beautiful rugs, which celebrate her bold simplicity and love of design in all its forms. Elsewhere, she is fondly remembered by artists, fashion designers, architects and even the shoe designers at Nike. At a dinner party in 1999 the host, designer Tom Ford, was shocked that one of his guests had never heard of her and famously remarked, ‘no one who does not know Eva Zeisel deserves to be at my table!’.

21 Comments

BibiaNA WALMSLEY on January 11, 2012

AN INSPIRATION TO ALL OF US

Dianne Aaronson on January 11, 2012

What an inspiring talent

KAREN CROSBIE – DREAMS INTO REALITY on January 11, 2012

What an astonishing talented lady. She may be gone, but her designs live on........ Deepest sympathy to all her family

Svetlana Sapozhnik on January 11, 2012

That was a remarkable life of the nice and talented woman left her trace in our world. Blessed memory of Eva

Angela on January 11, 2012

What an inspirational, talented designer. RIP

Malcolm Duffin – Designer on January 11, 2012

A creative genius with a colossal body of work spanning decades she transcended fashion ,interior and industry trends inspiring generations of Designers. She leaves an incredible inspirational legacy and am saddened at her departure.

Ray Martin on January 11, 2012

It is always a collective loss when someone of notable talent leaves us. I only wish for her legacy to live on. Eva was very blessed to have left her mark in this world. My deepest sympathies to all who knew her.

Michael Courdin Designer on January 11, 2012

I truly admired her consciousness of form and function. Every dinner I have is a reminder of her aesthtics.

Noel Hennessy on January 11, 2012

A tragic loss to our world of design but an awesome life and career. May she rest in peace and her legacy will continue to inspire others.

Paula Quinn on January 11, 2012

What a wonderfully talented lady! May she be a role model to all designers worldwide.

kathleen franza on January 11, 2012

I became a fan the day I first say one of her ceramic pieces. Much admired and surely missed by all.

Jodi Simmons on January 11, 2012

What an extraordinary woman! Although it's sad to know she's no longer living on our plane, weren't we blessed to have her with us for 105 years? May her legacy and design esthetic live forever.

Jodi Simmons on January 11, 2012

Oops, aesthetic. So sorry

Peggy Robbins Weiner-Designer on January 11, 2012

Loved hearing the story of Eva sending off a package to London and what I know must have been sheer delight upon opening and seeing her brilliant designs. Lucky, lucky you! Lucky, lucky us...thank you to everyone at Rug Co for sharing this beautiful tribute of Eva Zeisel.

suzanne hargreaves on January 11, 2012

It is very rare to receive an email from a company paying tribute to such a highly respected and much admired designer. The accolades are testament to Eva's design legacy - what a wonderful way to be remembered.

Ivan Beardsley on January 11, 2012

A lovely tribute to a truly lovely person. She will be remembered not only by her beautiful art but also with the grace she lived her life.

Wendy McGeary on January 11, 2012

Eva is an inspiration to all of us. She was truly blessed with the good health and keen mind to keep using her amazing talent to such a grand age. A wonderful way to be remembered.

Hilary Unger on January 11, 2012

You did a beautiful job in your tribute to Eva Ziesel. She will continue to be an inspiration to me and will always be remembered.

Danny Salimi on January 12, 2012

My deepest condolences to the family. I didn't know her personally, but she led an incredible life. Her legacy will always live on.

Cynthia Smith on January 16, 2012

Sadden to hear about her death. My condolences goes out to her family. I didn't know her personally, but she sounds like a awesome person. May she rest in peace now. Thank you for the information.

Eva Zeisel: A Soviet Prison Memoir on April 13, 2012

[...] A Tribute to Eva Zeisel [...]

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