Happy 103rd Birthday Eva Zeisel!

We usually shun exclamation points at DWR, but I had to make the exception for Eva Zeisel who turns 103 today. (103!) Truly the matriarch of the industrial design, Zeisel has been producing her signature fluid looks since she was 18, and launched a new career as a furniture designer when she was in her 80s. Her career has spanned centuries, continents and cultural clashes, and the inventions that have occurred in her lifetime include the telephone, jetliner and penicillin, just to name a few.

Zeisel at her 1951 solo exhibition Eva Zeisel: Industrial Designer at the Akron Art Institute. Courtesy of the Eva Zeisel Archives.

Born in Hungary in 1906, Zeisel’s life has all the elements of a great novel, and in fact, part of her life inspired the book Darkness at Noon by Arthur Koestler. (A timely read considering it’s the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall.) It was May 1936 when everything changed for Zeisel. She was 29 years old and working as the artistic director of the China and Glass Industry in Russia – an important job that Zeisel says she got because of her “personal charm.” But charming or not, with the job came enemies, and one night “at 4am, the doors knocked and so began a different life.” Falsely accused of plotting to assassinate Stalin, Zeisel was sent to prison for 16 months, 12 of which were in solitary confinement. Her release happened as mysteriously as her arrest, and to this day, Zeisel doesn’t know how it happened. “I hadn’t seen any colors for a year and a half,” says the designer.

Zeisel’s sketch for a collection inspired by the Kispester-Granit factory in Budapest, where she briefly worked in 1926.

Despite this dark period in her life – and perhaps because of it – Zeisel is continually intrigued by what she calls her “playful search for beauty.” Upon her release from prison, she married Hans Zeisel. They lived in Vienna briefly, before the threat of Hitler made them leave for America. “I saw the Statue of Liberty and my fears came down. It was a very touching reception,” says Zeisel of her October 1938 arrival. The next day she went to the magazine China and Glass and was immediately commissioned for 10 ceramic miniatures for $100. She was also hired at New York’s Pratt Institute, where she became the first person to teach ceramics as industrial design for mass production, rather than handicraft.

DWR Design Studio worked closely with Zeisel to launch her Granit Collection. Originally designed in 1983, and inspired by the factory where she worked in 1926, the collection was put into production in 2009.

Zeisel’s work continued to gather acclaim, and in 1946, her all-white modern dinner service – a first by an American designer – was honored with an exhibition at MoMA. Her work is included in the permanent collections of museums worldwide, including MoMA, the Met and the V&A. In 2005, she was awarded the National Design Award for Lifetime Achievement by the Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum in New York.

When Zeisel was in her early 80s, she started designing tables. The medium may have changed, but her Coffee Table (1993) is still very Zeisel, with its whimsical lines and ornamental motifs.

A person of delightfully defiant spirit, Zeisel has never been one to follow the predictable path of the fashionable avant-garde. “I didn’t accept the purism of modern design,” she says. “In my definition, if it gave beauty to the eye, it was beauty.”

To learn more about the woman who many (including me) believe to be the most important ceramic designer of the 20th century, check out the documentary Throwing Curves – Eva Zeisel (click here for the trailer) and her talk at TED.

And of course, please join me in raising a glass to Eva Zeisel and wishing her a very happy 103rd birthday.

Gwendolyn Horton