Eva Zeisel: 1906-2011

Her name was Eva Zeisel. She was one of the giants of 20th century design -- and it was my privilege to be her friend.
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On my stove is a kettle I bought four years ago in the gift shop of the Museum of Modern Art. It was manufactured the year before. The designer was the first woman to have a one-person show at MoMA, back in 1946. When she designed the kettle she was 101. She died on Saturday -- a little over a month after turning 105.

Her name was Eva Zeisel. She was one of the giants of 20th century design -- and it was my privilege to be her friend.

I had known Eva's daughter, Jean Richards, an actress, for several years. In the winter of 1975, she and her husband, an architect and architectural critic, Brent Brolin (The Failure of Modern Architecture) , invited my wife and I to spend a weekend in the country. Jeannie said that her mother would be there. It was the first time she had ever mentioned her mother -- at least that I could remember.

Our first contact with Eva was through her work. The house, in New City, N.Y., was full of her ceramics.

In the '50s, a critic wrote that the inspiration for Eva's design was babies' bottoms, and it's true that her pots and bowls had curves that invited caresses. When the Metropolitan Museum of Art reproduced some of Eva's dinnerware in 1998, Dick Stevens, who determined which classic designs the Met would recreate for its gift shop, noticed that when his young employees unpacked Eva's pieces they couldn't help running their palms over them.

She often told interviewers the inspiration for her work was mother and child. Probably her most famous piece is a salt and pepper set that certainly suggests a parent sheltering a child. In addition to Jeannie, Eva was the mother of John, who has done important research on Alzheimer's disease and written about non-pharmacological ways to deal with it in I'm Still Here.

We arrived late at night and did not meet Eva until the following afternoon. Still having no idea who she was, we were immediately captivated by her. She had been born Eva Amalia Stricker to a prosperous, assimilated Jewish family in Budapest in 1906 and though she had been through many ordeals in her then 69 years, she still retained the soft, gracious charm of Middle Europe in the Belle Époque.

As we conversed she began telling stories Jeannie later told us she had not told in years. They concerned the 16 months she had spent in a KGB prison when she was accused of plotting to assassinate Stalin.

By the early '30s she had already been recognized as a major talent (even as far away as Philadelphia, where she had won honorary mention in a competition in 1926.) At that time she was living in Berlin, part of a heady circle of artists and intellectuals who imagined they were going to create utopia.

Just then the work of Franz Kafka was being published in Germany, but her friends were not reading him. Only a few years ago, when I asked, she mentioned she had never read him. On my next visit I read her the first chapter of The Trial. At some point she asked me to stop. "It gives me the chills," she said (for the details of the arrest of Joseph K greatly resembled those of her own, which she recounts in her prison memoir, soon to be published as an e-book).

By 1933 it was clear that utopia was probably not going to be built in Germany. She moved to the Soviet Union, where she soon became head of production of the government's ceramics and porcelain industry. But in 1936, as part of the Great Terror of those years, she was arrested and imprisoned, ludicrously charged with plotting to murder Stalin. (Only in recent years, through some extraordinary coincidences, did she learn that The Great Leader and Teacher took a personal interest in her case.)

She spent much of her imprisonment in solitary confinement. She understood that the design of the prison intensified the sense of terror. The corridors, she realized, had rubber mats so you could not hear sounds outside your cell, which heightened your surprise and panic when your cell door would clank open.

Amazingly, she managed to retain her sanity and even her sense of humor. As she recalled her experiences to us, she would preface them with, "Anecdote number 37."

Once a week, she told us, a book cart tended by a woebegone custodian would arrive in her cell. She was grateful to have something to read. One of the novels she selected, she discovered, was about 18th century French counter-revolutionaries. When the man next came she chided him that such a book should be on his cart.

"Oh," he told her. "You wouldn't believe what kind of people we have in here. Not all of them are as devoted to our ideals as you are."

One day the cell door opened. She assumed her time had come and she would be executed. Instead she was given her freedom. That very day she got on a train for Vienna. There she was reunited with a friend she had known since he was a fellow student in her mother's experimental kindergarten in Budapest. His name was Arthur Koestler, and he incorporated many of her prison experiences in his monumental Darkness at Noon.

Despite her horrific treatment in Russia, Eva retained her sympathies for its hapless people. In the late '40s, Koestler asked her to join him in a Carnegie Hall public meeting to urge that the U.S. declare war on the Soviet Union. She refused. She could not countenance further suffering for the Russian people who had endured so much.

She retained an image of their innocence. Once, early in her stay there, she was on a streetcar wearing a silk blouse she had brought from Berlin. A mother sitting across from her told her daughter, "Look at that beautiful blouse. Soon we will all be able to wear things like that."

In Vienna she renewed her relationship with a lawyer and legal scholar, Hans Zeisel, whom she married. The pair emigrated to America in 1938. They arrived with $64. Eva quickly got work as a designer, which increased their net income by $100, a goodly sum in the Depression. Hans eventually taught law at the University of Chicago.

Though she was internationally renowned, when she spent time with Hans in Chicago she was treated simply as a faculty wife, a position she handled without resentment. Hans was a major figure in his own right. His legal opinions were frequently cited in Supreme Court cases. He once gave me an essay he wrote about Romeo and Juliet, one of the most useful pieces of Shakespeare criticism I have ever read. He died in 1992.

When we met her in the mid-70s, Eva had not done any design for over a decade. She had not "retired." Instead she was doing research about racial tensions in New York in the early 18th century.

In the '60s her work had fallen out of fashion. It was lyrical and graceful. The dominant spirit of that time was influenced by the Bauhaus style -- angular, rigid, angry. The aesthetic that dominated design was not to build on the past but to break with it. As she put it, artists defined their work not by what it was but by what it was not, which generally meant that it was not influenced by the ideas of the past.

Eva believed that nothing valuable could grow out of a spirit of negativity. She remained convinced that humans naturally yearn for beauty. By the '80s she was being rediscovered. Museums all over the world, which already had pieces of hers in their permanent collections, devoted special exhibitions to her design. When the Brooklyn Museum gave her a retrospective in 1984 many of the pieces came from her sister-in-law, Hilda Stryker, whose collection of Eva Zeisel was more extensive than her own.

She began receiving commissions again and traveled all over the world to supervise production of her designs. She was even invited back to the factory where she had worked in Leningrad before her arrest. By then Leningrad had resumed its identity as St. Petersburg, and Eva was honored for her contributions.

Although she may have fallen briefly out of official fashion she had always had fans who collected her work. In the early '90s the gay magazine Out called her "the Judy Garland of dishes." At a fashionable dinner party in Connecticut in 1999 the host, designer Tom Ford, was shocked that one of his guests had never heard of her. "No one who does not know the work of Eva Zeisel deserves to be at my table," he declared.

As she got older her eyesight faltered but she was able to continue designing because an important element of her work was tactile. She could still feel the curves she created -- like those on my kettle. A few years ago one of her design assistants sent some patterns she had made years earlier to a British rug manufacturer. She immediately received a reply requesting more work -- only subsequently did the rug executives learn who their "new" designer was.

In recent years her sight grew weaker. So did her hearing. On her 103rd birthday I complimented her that she was still working.

"Still?" she upbraided me, slighted that I should imagine age would deter her.

That was her spirit -- indomitable, ironic, infinitely gracious. If Stalin couldn't kill it, nothing as common as old age could.

It was not only as an artist that she was a giant. She was even moreso as a human being.

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