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The Playful Modernist Ceramics of an American Master

Eva Zeisel, who designed some of the most beautiful ceramics of the twentieth century, died on December 30. She was 105, working on new designs almost to the end. I met her nearly forty years ago, when I responded to an advertisement for a part-time job on a bulletin board at Columbia. I was in my early twenties, recently graduated from the college. When a rather staid looking women in her sixties answered the door in an old apartment building across the street from Columbia, I had no idea—how could I have had any idea?—that she was a force of nature, madcap and maddening, the heroine of a wonderland of her own invention.

I knew soon enough, when we drove up to her house in New City, with its redwood-and-slate kitchen and fantastical Biedermeier furniture and dramatically striped carpets, and she told me about Berlin in the 1920s, her friendship with Arthur Koestler, her show at the Museum of Modern Art. On the table in the kitchen there was a salt shaker I remembered from my childhood, part of a dinner service called Town and Country that Eva had designed in the 1940s and my mother had bought at Macy’s. So it turned out that Eva had always been there, part of my family. For some months I worked for Eva a day or two a week, typing or running errands. Once I found myself cleaning out the moldy refrigerator where the remains of a Thanksgiving dinner had been abandoned until well into the new year. I had fleeting glimpses of Eva’s husband Hans, who taught at the University of Chicago. He barely acknowledged me. Why bother? He knew that like all Eva’s other guy Fridays I would soon enough receive, as indeed I did, a final check and a curt note informing me that I was “too expensive.”

The manuscript that Eva was dictating to me—I had the job because I was a very fast typist—had nothing whatever to do with the work as an industrial designer of ceramics that had made her famous in America in the 1940s and 1950s. The 1970s had begun, and her work was in eclipse. So she had decided to try her hand at American history, having somehow unearthed what I dimly remember was the unpublished diary of an African-American man living in New York City in the late eighteenth century. Was I surprised when she told me that Bernard Bailyn, the Harvard historian, had said that her work would take the scholarly world by storm? Not at all. She was Eva in Wonderland and anything was possible.

So far as I know the manuscript about the African-American man did not get very far—she may have dismissed her scholarly ambitions along with me—but in the meantime I got to spend some time with one of the most vigorous design imaginations of the twentieth century. Eva was a restless modernist, with a feeling for the streamlined and the simplified that was complicated by her interest in variety, sensuousness, unpredictability. Sitting with her in her house in the country, where a nineteenth-century teapot with a lavishly painted surface could be set right next to the swelling form of one of her own bright white pitchers, you understood her instinctive feeling for the unity of all design. She talked about what could be learned from a walk around New York City, where there was such an enormous architectural range and each building had a profile that interacted with the sky in its own, independent way. When she designed an entire dinner service she thought about the various pieces as if they were an extended family, with deep formal relationships enriched by surprising variations.

When Eva dismissed the less-is-more orthodoxies that people associated with the Bauhaus, she dismissed them in favor of a modernism that she insisted would be generous, playful, open-hearted. The dishes she designed for middle class Americans had a democratic opulence, with a sense of pageantry in the way that the oval shape of a dinner plate was echoed in the increasingly complicated curves of bowls, cups, platters, and pitchers. You cannot really understand Eva’s designs until you live with them and use them. They are designed to be seen. But they are also designed to be handled. More than anything else, these dinner services were gifts she bestowed on a mid-century America where she had found a haven from the terrors of Russia and Germany in the 1930s. Eva had grown up in a prosperous and liberal Hungarian Jewish family, and she remained to the end of her life a product of the dizzying optimism of the years after World War I. An expanding market for industrial ceramics took her to Soviet Russia in the 1930s, where she had a booming career until she was accused of plotting against Stalin and spent some sixteen months in his prisons. Her friend Arthur Koestler, who still had influence in Russia, helped get her released; it is said that her experiences in solitary confinement contributed to Darkness at Noon. (When I worked for Eva she mentioned a visit with Koestler on a trip to Europe a few years before, and how she and her son had had to leave in a hurry, as Koestler still couldn’t keep his hands off Eva.)

In the 1980s Eva had the great good fortune to see her work come back into fashion. More than that, she died knowing her place in the history of design was assured. Some collaborations with the Zsolnay porcelain factory in Hungary were a late triumph, with iridescent glazes and biomorphic shapes that bring a modern forthrightness to the intricacies of art nouveau. Those Zsolnay vases, sensuous and lucid, are pure Eva. She was unlike anybody else I’ve ever known, instinctive and steely, an impulsive dreamer, utterly self-assured. She struck me as exotic. Looking back, I think what was so unfamiliar to me was her ironclad conviction that she was a citizen of the world. She felt at home in the United States. But I imagine she would have been happy in any number of countries where her work and her family could flourish. Her magnificent dishes, engineered for the masses, were the inventions of a woman who had been born at a moment when a democratic aristocracy really seemed possible. I feel that possibility in her easygoing, voluptuous forms. She remained, to the very end of her life, the girl who had been brought up believing she could do anything. She could. She did. 

Jed Perl is The New Republic’s art critic.