Eva Zeisel is considered one of the most influential industrial designers of the
twentieth century, with a career that spanned nine decades. Over the course of her
career, Eva designed thousands of pieces that have found homes in the permanent
collections of museums worldwide, including the Metropolitan Museum, Brooklyn
Museum, Cooper-Hewitt Design Museum, and The Museum of Modern Art in New
She spent the early years of her career in Germany developing the curvy and
biomorphic ceramics that would later define her career. At 26, Eva moved to Soviet
Russia and became an artistic director in the government’s china and glass industry.
In 1936 however, her life took a sudden turn when she was arrested on false charges
of conspiring to assassinate Stalin.
For sixteen months, Eva was held in prison, most of which she spent in solitary
confinement. After her release, Eva returned home to Austria for a brief time before
fleeing to England, and ultimately the U.S. during Europe’s Nazi invasion.
Eva and her husband immigrated to New York where she established herself as a
teacher at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn and a ceramics designer with companies such
as Bay Ridge Specialty Company, Red Wing Pottery, and Sears & Roebuck. In 1942,
she was commissioned by the Museum of Modern Art and Castleton China to design
a collection to be exhibited in the museum’s first-ever one-woman show.
This year, on what would have been Eva’s 115th birthday, we
sat down with her
daughter, Jean Richards, to learn more about the significant events, influences, and
people that shaped her life and career.
After learning more about her and reading her memoirs in particular, I think
it's safe to say that Eva was an incredibly resilient woman. Can you tell us a bit
about the kind of woman she was outside of the art world?
I would say that Eva had a good sense of humor, was optimistic, adventurous, warm,
and playful in her work. But mainly she was curious. Curious about other cultures,
Growing up with Eva was fun. We were always welcome in her elegant, modern
basement studio on Riverside Drive in NYC. There was an intercom between the
studio and our fifth-floor apartment so that she could keep in touch with the goings-on upstairs. She would joke that when my brother, John, was little, he called her on
the intercom in the middle of a business meeting, saying, “Billy kicked me. Should I
kick him back?” The yearly Christmas and Easter arts and crafts parties she gave for
our whole class in the studio were particularly memorable.
Eva loved to cook, known for her imaginative soups, but she hated housework,
considering it a waste of valuable time. Our home life was, to say the least, not
rigid. Eva was a warm, imaginative mother. Instead of children’s books, she read us
carefully chosen (age appropriate) short stories by O’Henry and Checkov. She also
instituted the ritual of the ‘Tumbalone.’ This was a private, quiet Time Alone with her,
for both my brother and me before we went to sleep. We could talk about anything
Eva was once asked how she was bringing up her children. She answered in a
letter, “One doesn’t bring up children. One gives birth to them, is good to them,
and tolerant, and enjoys interacting with them as one would with others.” I want to
emphasize that Eva had a wonderful backup, her mother, who lived next door, and
who took care of us, particularly when Eva visited factories.
“Eva had a good sense of humor, was optimistic, adventurous, warm, and playful in her
work. But, mainly she was curious. Curious about other cultures,
Eva’s mother, your grandmother, Laura, was described as a progressive
feminist. Your great-grandmother, Cecile was described as “a cigarette-smoking bohemian with radical views
who seemingly was not afraid of
anything or anyone.” It seems that Eva (and you) come from a long line of
In 1905, her mother, Laura, was giving lectures in Budapest advocating equal pay for
women, etc. she was certainly an early feminist and a peace advocate and historian.
She was one of the first women to get a Ph.D. at the university. She was also known
as a great beauty.
Eva started painting when she was very young but switched gears to
apprentice under the last pottery master in the medieval guild system and
was, in fact, the first female journeyman.
Eva intended to be a painter, but looking for a way to support herself, became an
apprentice to the last master potter of the Hungarian Guild of Chimney Sweeps,
Oven Makers, Roof Tilers, Well Diggers, and Potters. There she learned about clay
from the bottom up, starting with choosing clay from the mountains, mushing it
with her feet, throwing pieces on the wheel, firing them, and selling them in the
marketplace. She graduated as a journeyman and put an ad in the journal saying she
was a fully trained journeyman, and that is how she got her first job in Hamburg.
“She learned about clay from the bottom up, starting with choosing clay from the mountains, mushing
it with her feet, throwing pieces on the wheel, firing them, and selling them
in the marketplace.”
In her memoirs, Eva references several poems she wrote during her experience
in prison. I imagine it was the only form of art or expression afforded her
during those months she was incarcerated. And she continued to write long
after her release. When did she start writing poetry?
She would write little songs and poems for us when we were little, mostly
educational. The one that I never forget is called ‘Life.’ She wrote it to me when I
turned ten. “Now that you are old enough, I thought that you might want to start to
figure out how to live right, but how can you if you don’t know precisely where and
when life is? So, I wrote this poem for your birthday.”
The poems Eva wrote and recited in prison were extraordinary. They were composed
in German. Her prison cell was six steps diagonally from corner to corner, so she
incorporated that meter into her poems. Apart from poems for her children, she did
not continue writing poetry after her release.
She often mentions that she would practice mental exercises during her time
there so that she wouldn’t lose hope. And like you said, she had those six
steps across her cell to which she would write poetry. It seems she had a few
rituals to keep her sanity, poetry certainly being one of them.
She had several ways of coping with her sixteen months of prison life. Besides
writing poetry, she did exercises, often standing on her head. To keep her mind busy,
she played tic tac toe with herself, using small pinches of bread. Once, she used
the time well to design and construct a brassiere (in her head). Occasionally she had
cellmates, kind folks from whom she learned a lot. Her Russian was good. They were
allowed some books, as well, but mostly they fantasized about food.
She also had a peculiar ability to see herself, the absurdity of her situation, from the
outside. She told me that she traveled through life as a tourist. Most of the time, she
managed to keep her dignity and equanimity in prison.perspective. And I think that’s
very important. She was a tourist even in her own life. And seeing herself from the
outside, I think, helped her tremendously in that situation.
She spent 16 months in prison. She spent time in solitary confinement.
She described every day as presumably her last. She even describes the
experience of attempting to end her own life. After she was released, there was
a period of time you described her as “completely kaput.”
Totally kaput. In fact, on the train going out, she described a conversation she
with a man, a stranger. When she was asked how old she was, she said something
to the effect, “What do you think?” And, he said, “Not a day over fifty.” And, of
course, she was only thirty. So, when she got to Vienna, she had no will. She had no
strength. She had nothing. She was totally shut down. It was several months that
she was just couldn’t function.
An experience like that could leave you in that darkness for the rest of your
life, or at the very least, you’d likely suffer a form of post-traumatic stress. So
how did she find her way out of that? Was she able to use art and design as a
form of healing?
It wasn’t immediate, but some time during those first six months in Vienna, she made
a contract with a Hungarian factory she was going to work with. Still, it never came
to anything because on the day Hitler marched into Vienna, March 12, 1938, Eva
took the last train out of Austria. “I could not stand another trauma,” she said later.
Of her ceramic collections, you’ve said that “she always designed in
relationships, never a piece by itself. She said the pieces all had to be
cousins.” A stark contrast to the experience of spending months in solitary
confinement. What was the significance of designing pieces meant to work
together and never them on their own? Why was this so important to her
approach to design?
She said that the pieces in a set did not have to be siblings, but they should be
cousins. I’m not sure why she designed in relationships, but some of her designs
were inspired by human forms (belly buttons crop up in many of her designs). A
museum curator once referred to another of Eva’s inspirations: baby’s bottoms!
Her salt and pepper shakers for RedWing were meant to be mother and child, based
on her and me. But I am quite sure that her isolation in prison did not affect her
designs. They did affect her attitude towards life, however. She said that she felt that
her life after prison was a gift, as she had so nearly lost it.
Birds make an appearance in many of Eva’s designs. In her ceramics, many of
the painted details, and later in her furniture design, she incorporated them
often. What inspired this continuous reference?
In Hungary, birds are very popular in folk literature. And I once came across a
from her, which says, “When you put your hands in clay, it’s very hard not to make
a bird.” So, the birds from her work and designs come from the Hungarian folk
“In Hungary, where she came from, birds are a
popular theme in folk art. I once came across a
funny quote from her, ‘When you put your hands
in clay, it’s very hard not to
make a bird.’”
There seems to be a significant relationship between form and function
in her work. You’ve said, “She always designed her pieces as a gift for others,
for the user. She didn’t believe in self-expression.”
Regarding function, she said, “Of course an object has to function. A teapot has
to pour correctly, etc. That is obvious. But within that function, there is an infinite
number of esthetic choices, and that’s where design comes in.”
Regarding Eva’s design as a gift to the user, that was absolutely true. She was
proud that her fan mail often included the word “love,” as in “I love that bowl.”
The fact is that she put love into her designs and was glad when that love was
communicated to the user.
In this regard, it makes sense that her work would be a good fit and translate so beautifully into wall
tiles for FilzFelt. These are architectural products with a very clear function and purpose. Most commonly,
these are intended to perform acoustically, so there is that direct function, but you combine it with her design,
and therein lies that perfect relationship between form and function.
Yes, and on that, some of those patterns were originally actual clay tiles which
also had a function. I would say that everything she designed, except her early paintings, everything she
designed had a function. She never designed an object that was simply pretty to stand or display. I mean,
there were a couple of things
she designed that were just silly. I remember a little wooden lady with bells, and you could move her back
and forth, and the bells would ring. That was simply fun. But really, anything she designed had a function,
either tiles or acoustic tiles, or cups, and even her space dividers had a function, which specifically
inspired the FilzFelt tiles. The belly button that inspired the FilzFelt tile (Spindle Block) was originally
a three-dimensional clay tile, that went on rods to make a transparent wall. So those shapes had
three functions. One was a three-dimensional tile, one was
a flat tile, and one was an acoustic tile. So, in everything she did, the design had a function of some
I know if Eva were still alive she would have a huge amount of fun playing with the
FilzFelt tiles and putting them together in different ways. She would have been thrilled
that her beloved shapes made in gorgeous colors by FilzFelt have a brand new
function (and she probably would have put them up on all her walls!)
Her influence in the art world is significant. Her work crosses so many disciplines, generations, and
industries. Her work, it seems, holds the resilience and timelessness that she did in life.
Yes, at one point, a while back, she was at an event at the 92nd Street Y with
the designer Jonathan Adler. And it was the very old and the young in a discussion. So this was Eva. And
this was Jonathan. Eva was 90, and Jonathan was 25. And, even more recently, I was called by the head
of design at Nike. Amazingly, he had all his designers study her work.
It’s Life you are living and life is here.
It’s not sometime later, it’s now, Jeannie dear.
It’s not a road with beginning and end.
It leads not anywhere, it’s the time you spend.
It’s life when the sun shines, it’s life when it rains,
not where you are
going, but riding the trains.
Life is not a stamp collection of memories of the past.
Life is in the
present tense, the memory while it
The cloud that hurries gently by, the bunnies’ funny leaps,
if you hug them with
your eye, belong to you for
Don’t think that once will come a day when we’ll all be rich and smart
and laughter will be
here to stay,
and then real life will start.
Between the not yet gilded past and the time for which we strive lies,
unnoticed and not to
last, the moment
which is life.
"Life", by Eva Zeisel (1950)
Though best known for her modernist ceramics, the Eva Zeisel Collection for FilzFelt takes inspiration from her room dividers and glazed tiles in six shapes of acoustic tiles that
feature curvilinear forms nesting together to create soft, fluid patterning. In true Eva Zeisel spirit, the playful patterns may go bold with saturated colors or soft and sensual with
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