As “Ahead of the Curve,” a new exhibit at the Rye Arts Center, ably demonstrates, ceramics designer Eva Zeisel was ahead of her time.
By Margot Clark-Junkins
As “Ahead of the Curve,” a new exhibit at the Rye Arts Center, ably demonstrates, ceramics designer Eva Zeisel was ahead of her time. Curators Andrea Megyes and Jeff Taylor have brought together a judicious sampling of Zeisel’s oeuvre, along with some wonderful archival photographs, which underscore the significance of her contribution to the history of design.
Born in Hungary in 1906, she grew up among academics in an affluent Jewish household. She studied painting for three semesters at the Royal Academy in Budapest, but withdrew after developing an interest in pottery. She apprenticed with a master potter within the Guild of Chimney Sweeps, Oven Makers, Roof Tilers, Well Diggers, and Potters. It was a humble but determined start for a young lady who would eventually gain international acclaim for her ceramic designs.
By the age of 20, she had earned the status of a journeyman, which meant she could legitimately seek work as a skilled craftsman. Eager to see the world, she applied for positions that would take her far from home.
Within a span of four years, Zeisel had moved to Germany and designed ceramic dinnerware for manufacturers from Budapest to Berlin. In 1932, she traveled to Russia, where she worked as a designer for a number of ceramics factories. Unfortunately, in 1936, she was imprisoned for 16 months during one of Joseph Stalin’s horrific purges. After being expelled from Russia, she made her way to Vienna, but moved on quickly to avoid the Nazis. Safely in England, she married Hans Zeisel, a lawyer she had known in Berlin, and arrived in the United States in 1938. They had $67 between them.
In short order, Zeisel landed a position teaching ceramics at Pratt Institute. Her design style grew simpler and cleaner. Her “Museum” porcelain table service was exhibited at MOMA in 1946, bringing her fame and lucrative commissions. Raising a family, she was sometimes pulled away from her craft, but she continued to produce during creative spurts over the decades of her long life. In the course of her career, she also reached beyond ceramics, designing stainless steel flatware, chairs and rugs. She won many awards and her designs may be found in the collections of major museums including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, MoMA, and the Cooper Hewitt/Smithsonian Design Museum.
In a TED Talk given in 2001, Zeisel — then about 94 years old, by her own admission — said, “I call myself a maker of things,” someone who designs useful objects which are “more beautiful, more elegant, more comfortable.” Her sensibility was very much in keeping with mid-century tastemakers who felt that in designing objects (and homes) for daily life, form must follow function. But she also believed in “playful” design, in making objects both useful and fun, and this is especially evident in her salt-and-pepper shakers, and child’s feeding cup with spoon.
Eva Zeisel died in 2011 at the age of 105. Her extraordinary life and many successes can be attributed to her intellect and ambition, traits so rarely permitted to shine in young women in the first half of the 20th century. The spare, clean lines and user-friendly shapes that she preferred put her squarely at the forefront of modern design. According to her obituary, a young ceramicist one asked Zeisel how she could make something so beautiful. The artist replied: “You just have to get out of the way.”
“Eva Zeisel: Ahead of the Curve” runs through May 22 at The Rye Arts Center. Gallery hours are Monday-Friday from 9-5, and Saturday from 9-3.