Eva Zeisel




At home with Eva Zeisel by Lucie Young

‘I am slimming right this moment,’ said Eva Zeisel, 90, upon hearing that she was to be profiled in the New York Times. ‘I’ve only eaten half of this scone and I am putting the rest of it down.’

Mrs Zeisel was talking on the phone during a tea break from designing a new collection of curvaceous wooden furniture.

Fifty years after her first heyday as one of America’s pre-eminent designers of ceramic tableware, Mrs Zeisel is enjoying the spotlight again. Twenty five of her pieces from the 1940s and 50s are back in production, including some from the sleek, lilting Tomorrow’s Classics series and the rougher, more bohemian Town and Country line.

‘She is absolutely one of the greats of 20th-century design,’ said Christopher Will, who brought the first retrospective of her work to the Brooklyn Museum, in 1984, when he was a curator there (he is now a chief curator at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London).  ‘She became the leading designer in the ceramic industry in America.’ The Museum of Modern Art has 75 Zeisel pieces in its permanent collection, compared with only 18 by Russel Wright.

But more interesting to Mrs Zeisel are her new projects, like her first furniture collection (which includes pieces for home offices) and interiors for three Original Leather Stores – in SoHo, Greenwich Village and a new one to open next month at Madison Avenue and 82nd Street.

‘I am almost committing suicide –  they messed it up so badly,’ she said in exasperation after a visit to the Madison Avenue construction site last week. ‘We are having people come out of the bathroom on a 20 inch ledge and they will all fall down the steps.’

Now busier than ever, Mrs Zeisel seems to be everywhere at once.  She shuttles between her apartment near Columbia University, her studio in the Flatiron district and two homes in Rockland County, NY: a large white clapboard house, part of which is being rebuilt after a fire, and a seven-room guest house that started out as a garage and has sprouted in all directions.

A visitor to Mrs Zeisel’s Rockland County home should expect expect a cup of tea (which is strong enough to dye teeth black on contact) and an energetic scamper all over the property.  Wearing lavender tights under a pale gray housedress with ruffs at the neck and cuffs, she insists that a visitor accompany her to inspect her workshop, which is now full of the industrial strength saws she uses to make furniture prototypes.

Or she drags the visitor along to check on the progress of the rebuilding of the main house.

‘The supports look like toothpicks,’ she told the workmen in her thick Hungarian accent, her unruly white hair standing up on end like Einstein’s. Then she ordered them to escort her to the main floor of the damaged wing to bounce up and down a bit on the floorboards to test the sturdiness of the underpinnings.

‘She suffers from projectitis,’ said Jean Richards, Mrs Zeisel’s daughter.  ‘She is wildly curious. She will go anywhere at any time of day or night to see anything.’

Mrs Zeisel enlarged the guest house over a seven-year period in the 1960s, doing much of the work with her own hands. The result is an eccentric compilation of materials, including 1950s wrought iron balustrades from hotels that are used as bannisters, and factory windows that frame views of an indoor garden (she bought some of the components at auction and decided later what to do with them).

A semi-circular alcove in one of the two living rooms is partly walled with granite boulders pilfered from a building site on West 189th Street.  The  night watchman was somewhat perturbed when Mrs Zeisel (then 60 something) turned up in a U-Haul truck with some of her design students to cart off the rocks. He didn’t stop them. ‘We were in the majority,’ she said. ‘If I hadn’t picked up the stones they would have gone on the rubbish.’

The house’s warmth and whimsy and lack of right angles were some of the elements that inspired Steven Rappaport, the owner of the Original Leather Store, to engage Mrs Zeisel as his designer.  He and his family rented the guest house for five years, from 1990 to 1995.

Despite current differences over the execution of the Madison Avenue shop, Mr Rappaport is still a great fan.  ‘The practical response to her work was that my business increased phenomenally,’ he said.

Another of Mrs Zeisel’s projects is the office of her nephew John M Striker, the president of Brownstone Publishers in Manhattan.  ‘This is like Betty Crocker’s test kitchen,’ he said, sitting behind his dark curlicued wooden desk.  ‘She used me as a test lab for the office furniture she wanted to design.’ Ms Zeisel apparently didn’t wait for a commission (or even permission) from her nephew. She simply told him: ‘Don’t buy anything. I’ll build it all for you’.

The results are a curvaceously sculpted bookcase, desk, side chairs, two low tables and four filing cabinets that are camouflaged as a long sideboard (the individual units can be wheeled anywhere and have flip-up work surfaces).  Her furniture, including a piece no bigger than an old-fashioned sewing table that unfolds to reveal a filing cabinet and a multitude of surfaces, is being produced by the Cumberland Woodcraft Company of Carlisle, PA.

The furniture line is just the latest phase in a creative career that has extended over 70 years.

As a young woman from a wealthy Budapest family, Eva Alexandrovna Stricker was playful, but also extremely single minded. As a child she refused to sleep indoors, prefering to lay out under the blossoming peach, pomegranet, almond and filbert trees in the family’s lavish garden.

At 18, she enroled in the Budapest Academy of Fine Arts to become a painter. But after 18 months, she quit to train as an apprentice potter in a rundown section of the the city. She was, she said, the first woman to become a member of the Hungarian Guild of Chimney Sweeps, Oven Makers, Roof Tilers, Well Diggers and Potters.

During her second job, at an art-pottery studio in Hamburg, Germany, she worked in Dickensian squalor above a courtyard full of pigs and rubbish, two blocks from the red-light district. Her colleagues included a deaf man, who  smelled so bad she doused him with cologne every morning, and a gnarled gnome, who took it upon himself to protect her. ‘When we got paid, he invited his friends round – mostly blind beggars – and we all had drinks,’ she said.

By night, the young designer underwent a Cinderella-like transformation and attended parties given by what she calls the ‘high bourgeois, no-morals society’ of the roaring Weimar Republic 20’s.  ‘At that time I was a real prude.’ she said.  ‘They thought I was a lesbian because I didn’t mix with other people.’ At least not in the way that others were mixing. ‘At these parties people were lying on top of each other like sardines in the dark,’ she added, rolling her eyes for good measure.

During a stint in the Black Forest at Schramberg, Germany, in the late 20s, her designs exhibited the stern geometry of the day and were decorated in bold, bright greens, yellows and reds. It was there that she stopped throwing her pottery on the wheel and began designing on paper and then carving molds, a practice she has continued ever since.

With a move to Berlin in 1931, her designs began to soften into the more familiar sensuous forms.

‘It was the only really elegant time of my life,’ she said. She lived half a block from the Romanisches Cafe, considered by many progressive intellectuals of the time to be the center of the world. ‘The discussions often went over from the cafe to my apartment,’ she recalled, squeezing her eyes tight shut at this pleasurable memory. Much of the culture she enjoyed in Berlin was Russian:  so on Jan 1, 1932, she left for Russia on a whim. ‘ I was interested in what was behind the curtain,’ she said. This time, curiosity nearly killed the cat.

For the first four years, Russia proved to be an opportune career move. She quickly found work in the Government-run Ukranian China and Glass Trust. This entailed visiting far-flung factories.

‘Travelling was high comedy,’ she said, recalling that she once had to spend the night in a train station in the middle of nowhere. She slept on a long table in her leather boots and coat. She awoke the next morning to find breakfast going on around her – literally. At the next town she was obliged to wait in the snow for 24 hours for a truck to pick her up. When she finally arrived at the factory she was reprimand: ‘What kind of time is this to arrive?’ But she found that on each pottery wheel there was a geranium in her honor.

‘The whole country at that time smelt of old, wet clothes,’ she said. ‘It was a time of very great famine. The Listener, a magazine in London, said nobody knows for sure if there was real famine because no foreigner was there. But I was there. They ate their cats and dogs first and then their in-laws.’

By age 29, she had been promoted to Artistic Leader of the China and Glass Industry of the Russian Republic. Asked how she got such an important position, she gives a huge Garbo-esque shrug and says off-handedly ‘personal charm’. In this new capacity, she had the authority to lay out an experimental factory and supervise the output at Dulveo one of second biggest ceramics factories in the world.

But her success brought her enemies and in May 1936 she was arrested in Moscow. Her supposed crime was plotting to assasinate Stalin. For 16 months she she was held in various prisons and interrogated. For 12 of those months she was kept in solitary confinement.

To stay sane in prison, Mrs Zeisel said, she exercised what she calls ‘thought control’ banning all daydreams of her future and reminiscences of her past and instead tried to focus on the here and now with mind games like imagining how she would go about constructing a bra. She kept fit by performing rudimentary gymnastics – mostly head stands or bicycling in the air.

Sixty years later, she says she is still totally focused on the present moment. ‘When someone says let’s make a date for Wednesday, it has no reality,’ she said. ‘Eternity is only in the present, and when the present is filled with disharmony, it is lost.’

‘Look,’ she said, flapping her arms in agitation, ‘my life is a total unexpected gift.  For months I was dead.  you feel the difference first in the way you see colors.  It’s because of the deprivation.’ Some of her experiences in prison went into ‘Darkness at Noon’ by Arthur Koestler, a friend since early childhood (they were both pupils at Mrs Zeisel’s mother’s kindergarten, where  pupils were taught painting, rhythmic dancing and philosophy. ‘It was based on a misunderstood tenent of psychoanalysis; that we were fighting the original wild man within us,’ said Mrz Zeisel with a chuckle.

On Sept. 17 1937, Mrs Zeisel assumed she was being taken out of her cell to her execution but was instead put on a train to Vienna. Six months later, her life was in danger again when Hitler annexed Austria in March 1938. She escaped to England (taking the very last train out of Austria before the border closed). There she married Hans Zeisel, a German lawyer who had waited for her while she was in Russia.  Soon after, they departed for the United States with $64 between them.

Mrs Zeisel got her start in America at the public library: she looked in design magazines, then got in touch with the editors and asked for introductions to manufacturers.

Within a decade, she had secured a place in American design history by gaining a commission from the Museum of Modern Art to create a special dinner service for the museum.

But then, as now, she was no fan of the modern movement. Her grievance (which she drummed into her students during her years of teaching at the Pratt Institute and Rhode Island School of Design) is that designs should communicate but in the modern movement communication was cut off.  ‘For the Moderns, objects were supposed to be mute slaves not soulful friends’

At the temple of modernism, the Museum of Modern Art where she had her photo taken for this article, Mrs Zeisel managed to keep silent about her antipathy til she neared the exit. Here she sidled up to a large black and white Robert Motherwell painting, furrowed her brow and asked irritatedly. ‘But what is it supposed to be?’

Many of Mrs Zeisel’s shapes are inspired by the human form:  one of her line of interlocking terra-cotta room dividers (dating from the 50s and being produced again, by Bret Bortner Design of Elgin, Ill) is in the form of a woman’s midriff, complete with navel.

Mrs Zeisel keeps a box the size of a bedside table that is crammed with press clippings, photographs and unpublished book manuscripts.

‘My dear, you don’t have to read it – just put it on the scale, and you will see the importance of my design,’ she said mischievously.  On top was a folder marked ‘Love Letters’ which contained not traditional billets-doux but a sheaf of fan mail.

Paradoxically, though generations of Americans have dined, lunched and even breakfasted off her creations, most of her career has been spent in factories, with little contact with her customers except by mail.  So earlier this summer, in order to meet her public face to face, she decided to take a stand at the Rockland County Fair selling the new editions of her ceramics.

‘For the first time ever, I saw people reach for and touch the pieces I designed,’ she said.  ‘My Russian neighbor said it is déclassé to sell at the market – but what do I care?’