February 1, 2012
The long and prolific life of Eva Zeisel
As a young adult in search of a stronger identity than that provided by a bland New Jersey public education and an equally whitewashed neighborhood, I went on a reading rampage. Among the many titles that I devoured was Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon. In it, he describes prison life in the Soviet Union during Stalin’s most paranoid phase. Koestler helped me understand the brutality that crushed the Hungarian revolution of 1956, an event that landed my family on the eastern seaboard of the United States. He made me realize that my parents’ decision to leave home, a decision I challenged growing up, was made for reasons of survival. This insight gave me peace. It also gave me an abiding appreciation for our adopted country.
At the time, I wondered how Koestler knew the details of such excruciating incarceration, and the constant fear of death that went with it. I did not know until recently that the horrors were experienced by a person I would meet later and grow to admire. Koestler’s Deep Throat, his source for those harrowing details, was the designer Eva Zeisel. This, and many other details of her life, became public with the news of her death at the age of 105. Though the length of her life is cause alone for celebration, it’s her nine decades of unrelenting work as a designer for industry that touched millions. Her graceful and fluid forms asked to be touched, admired, and used. Reaching across generations, Eva’s vases, teapots, saltshakers, and every other item needed to create beautiful and functional tabletops came to symbolize convivial and satisfying meals.
When I asked her about these very organic but modern forms, so different in spirit from the angular shapes favored by the Bauhaus—the design movement that dominated an Eastern Europe where she, too, was considered avant-garde—she explained with a gesture unique to someone committed to the tactile. She lifted her generous and expressive hands and outlined a square in the air. Then she asked me, “Have you ever seen nature create this shape?”
Aside from softening sharp edges, Eva was also known for studying history, something anathema to the modernists bent on inventing a new world. To her, this wholesale denial of the past was nonsense. So she set out to learn everything about the ceramic works that employed her. Her interest was not in craft but in industrialization, and in that she could claim a kinship to the Bauhaus. But more than any of its designers, Eva’s work was mass-produced and sold to a wide audience.
Eva’s legacy reaches far beyond her many designs. Her daughter, Jean Richards, has been her tireless advocate. Her son, John Zeisel, a PhD trained in architecture and sociology, is widely known for his Alzheimer’s research. And true to the progressive spirit with which she imbued everyone who came in contact with her, an iBook (with photos, maps, audio, and video accounts), Eva Zeisel: A Soviet Prison Memoir, is about to be released. I am looking forward to seeing what Koestler left out.