By Andrea Lillo
Inspired by belly buttons and baby bottoms, Eva Zeisel, who passed away in December at the age of 105, left her iconic mark on the home furnishings industry.
Known for her organic and fluid shapes, Zeisel “was inspired by the human body, nature and Hungarian folk motifs,” her daughter, Jean Richards, said. But “she was not widely fussy about colors.” One of her first collections in the U.S. was a line of fine porcelain dinnerware for the Castleton China Company, which was later presented at a one-woman show at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
While she is known for her ceramics, which included collaborations with Royal Stafford, she also created products for other categories, including a giftware line with Nambé, a tea kettle for Chantal, rugs for The Rug Company and furniture, which she began designing in the early 1990s. Her first lighting collection will debut this spring, from Leucos USA, as will a set of frames with Wexel Art next month.
Born Eva Stricker in Budapest, Hungary, in 1906, Zeisel initially wanted to be a painter, but turned to ceramics in the 1920s as a more stable career path. She didn’t plan on becoming a designer, said Richards, but she designed her first tableware for a German ceramics manufacturer in 1928 — one of the first collections created for mass production. In the early 1930s, Zeisel moved to Russia to work for several years until she was falsely accused of trying to assassinate Joseph Stalin and arrested. She spent 15 months in jail, mostly in solitary confinement, and then was released without explanation in 1937. (In 1995, the former charges against her in Russia were overturned.) She then met up with and married Hans Zeisel and they emigrated to the United States in 1938.
Zeisel had a generous spirit with her talent, feeling that “all of her designs were gifts for others; they were communicative of emotion,” Richards said. “She did not believe in art for self expression.” She also preferred to create groups of things that related to each other, like a family, Richards said, rather than solo pieces. Richard and her husband Brent Brolin are currently working on an electronic book (evamemoir.com) that tells Zeisel’s experience in prison in her own words — and with wit and humor, Richards said.
Zeisel’s numerous honors included receiving the Living Legend Award at Pratt Institute, where she taught for years, the Russel Wright Award for Design Excellence and the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Award for Lifetime Achievement.
Pre-deceased by her husband, Zeisel is survived by a son as well as Richards and three grandchildren.