photo credit: www.brooklynrail.org
The ceramics world lost yet another giant as 2011 came to a close. A little over a month after turning 105, Eva Zeisel, designer of some of the 20th century’s most seductive and iconic objects passed away. Born, Eva Amalia Striker, into a prosperous and assimilated Jewish family in Budapest, Hungary in 1906, she entered the Royal Academy of Fine Arts at age 17. Eva’s mother encouraged her to enter an apprenticeship with a traditional artisan out of concern for her ability to make a living as a painter. She soon became the first woman member of traditional Hungarian Guild of Chimney Sweeps, Oven Makers, Roof Tilers, Well Diggers & Potters. One year after establishing a studio on her family’s property her work was displayed at the Philadelphia Sesquicentennial, where she won an honorable mention. She began designing in the Kispester Factory in Budapest, but soon found work in Germany which promised to engage her in all phases of industrial design and production of ceramic wares. This established Zeisel as the first woman to move ceramic arts into mass production. In 1932, inspired by new artistic and social movements taking place in Russia, she embarked on a vacation which led to expanded opportunities in industrial design. Young Eva took a position helping to modernize Russia’s ceramic industry and traveled throughout the country to coordinate efforts to create a central manufactory. She was soon transferred to Leningrad and then appointed Artistic Director for the Porcelain and Glass Industries for all of Russia. In 1936 she was imprisoned in the NKVD prison for 16 months, accused of plotting against Stalin. Among other things, it was suggested she had hidden swastikas in porcelain designs and hidden guns for an assassination attempt. Close friend Arthur Koestler, who mentioned her in the dedication for his novel Darkness at Noon (1940) drew from Zeisel’s experiences of solitary confinement to formulate his harrowing tale of totalitarian rule in Russia. In her work, Zeisel remained committed to the Bauhaus dictum that the highest form of industry is to mass produce works of art. Yet the aura of the hand, the body and the animal spirit embodied in her designs transcended their means of mechanical reproduction. Incorporating the profiles of belly buttons and baby’s bottoms to invite tactile experience and the open mouths of birds to dispense cream, Zeisel expanded the language of form and function in mass produced wares. Through her life and work, Zeisel not only inspired successive generations of ceramic artists, she also presaged tendencies of hybridization in art, design and craft that have a very 21st century feel.
mugshot of Eva Zeisel
Obituary courtesy of NCECA