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).
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!’.