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Eva Zeisel

Ceramics designer Eva Zeisel (1906-2011) began a prolific career in her late teens and continued to create innovative pieces into the 21st century. She was born in Budapest and pursued a career in painting, studying at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts, but left in search of a more craft-oriented trade. She was apprenticed to a ceramist and soon became one of the first female journeyman potters, holding positions at the Kispester factory, in Schramberg and for Christian Carstens Kommerz. Her work from this period-- tea sets, bowls, vases, and dinnerware-- reflect a style influenced largely by the geometry of the Bauhaus and by the abstract shapes of sculptor Hans Arp. The pieces possess Zeisel's innate understanding of how ceramics work as an ensemble and how they can set the tone of a space.

In 1932 Zeisel moved to Russia, drawn by the folk art and the peasant customs that still thrived there. She worked at factories in the Ukraine, the Lomonosov Factory in Leningrad and the Dulevo factory near Moscow, at that time one of the biggest ceramics factories in world. After working her way up to art director of the China and Glass Industry of the Russian Republic, she was forced to leave by the increasingly hostile attitudes towards foreigners. In 1938 she moved to England to escape the Nazi occupation of Austria, and married sociologist Hans Zeisel. The couple immigrated to the United States in late 1938. One of Zeisel's first commissions in America was designing giftware for the Bay Ridge Specialty Company. When she started teaching at Pratt in 1939, a position she held until 1953, she arranged an innovative apprenticeship for her students through Bay Ridge, offering them a unique opportunity to gain professional experience. She received a great deal of acclaim for this system and often included her students' work in commissions, like the 1942 "Stratoware" dinnerware for Sears Roebuck.

In 1942, after the MoMA's "Organic Design in Home Furnishings exhibit, the Castleton Company asked the museum to find a ceramist who could show a series that would define a new era of modern china. Zeisel was chosen, and her 1946 "Museum" series was unveiled at a solo show called "Modern China by Eva Zeisel." She wrote that for the show she, "gave all the pieces an erect, uplifted look, as if they were growing up from the table." Going so far as to consult Emily Post's guide to setting a table, Zeisel created an elegant, all-white service with subtle curves that hinted at her forthcoming biomorphic work. She followed this high profile line with the colorful, and playful, 1946 "Town and Country" dinnerware for Red Wing Pottery. The popular series, recently reissued, featured bulbous, cartoon-like handles and bases executed as a modern and unique set. Another acclaimed series was the "Tomorrow's Classic" for Charles Seliger, with applied decorative patterns born out of a deal between the Commercial Decal Company and Hall China. She also designed a 1950's tubular steel chair with a plastic, zippered cover, and experimental ceramic wall dividers for Mancioli pottery in Italy, which were never produced. Zeisel retired from mass-produced commercial design in the mid 1960s. She kept creating her own work, however, and retraced her formative European years in the 1980s on a NEA fellowship. Some of her many recent honors include being named an Honorary Royal Designer by the Royal Designers for Industry, London (2004), receiving an honorary doctorate from the Rhode Island School of Design (2005), and receiving the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Award for Lifetime Achievement (2005).

 

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