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Tribute: Balancing life, work and beauty

Eva Zeisel (photo: Brigitte Lacombe)
EVA ZEISEL (1906-2011) MAKER OF THINGS
Ceramicist Eva Zeisel touched thousands of lives with her playful, curvaceous tableware designs. But she also lived a remarkable life of her own – one where beauty and health could not be separated. Her son John Zeisel pays tribute.

Eva Zeisel, my mother, died on 30 December 2011, a few weeks after her 105th birthday. Her long life was one of overcoming adversity, being creative, empowering students and family, giving and receiving love, and living to 105. If any life can be framed by a few words, her three words are curiosity, creativity and playfulness. She herself summed up her design approach as “the playful search for beauty.”

People were drawn to Eva as they are to all powerfully creative artists and thinkers – because they know that she saw to the heart of things and that her approval meant so much more than the approval of others. When I ponder why this was, I realise that above all she was nonjudgmental. Her curiosity knew no bounds. She would listen to everyone with an open mind and open heart.

John and Eva discussing
production of her goblets
A celebration of life

She was one of the earliest “industrial designers”, although she didn’t like the term. In a 2001 TED talk – delivered at the age of 95 – she explained that “industrial design” to her implied “novelty” and that the things she was after instead were elegance and beauty. She called herself “a maker of things.”

Most of the articles about Eva that have appeared since her death start with the adversity she faced – imprisoned on a trumped-up charge by Stalin’s KGB and kept in solitary confinement for over a year (she celebrated her 30th birthday in Leningrad’s Butyrka Prison) and an escape from Vienna just as Hitler marched into Austria. They don’t mention that at 95 she fell and broke her hip, an accident that has killed many elders. She survived this with determination and purpose, and went on to live and design for another ten years.

Eva as a teenager in Hungry
(Eva Zeisel Archives)
Then they highlight her successes. In the Soviet Union in the early 1930s, when, still in her mid-20s, she became artistic director of the ceramics industry, she was fond of saying: “Stalin wanted every Russian peasant to have a cup and a bowl, and I designed them.” In 1947, after incredibly getting out of prison and only nine years after coming to America (and having two children), the Museum of Modern Art commissioned and exhibited her Castleton dinnerware, the first one woman show at MoMA.

The articles also mention her best-selling Hallcraft dinnerware, her glazed earthenware Town and Country set, including her salt and pepper shaker “shmoos,” and her Classic Century dinnerware set available today at Crate and Barrel.

By her own count, Eva designed over 100,000 individual objects, many of which are in permanent collections of the British Museum, The Boston Museum of Fine Arts, the Victoria and Albert Musuem and the MoMA.

A few mention the fact that she influenced the lives of countless students when she taught at the Industrial design departments at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn and the Rhode Island School of Design in Providence – both programmes that she was instrumental in founding. They don’t mention that her students learned as much from her about life, and themselves, as about design – she once had them compare the way they designed to the way they looked, pointing out how their body image influenced their work.

After a wildly successful creative life, possibly after every life, it is important to celebrate the impact the person had on the rest of the world – the karma that lasts on and on – the deeds and energy the person leaves with us. Yes I am sad, but I am also aware that Eva is still here in so many ways through not only her work but also her family.

Castleton - Eva's favourite
(Brent C Brolin)
A creative contrarian

Eva was not above being a contrarian. During the rightangled, visually severe Bauhaus and later Modernism periods she designed curves. Her dishes and pitchers and teapots and cups were – no, are – curvy and sensual, they feel and were meant to feel like soft, mostly female, bodies.

They told stories of mother and child – touching the heart of everyone who uses them both emotionally and spiritually. She used to marvel with pleasure whenever she received letters and emails from fans telling her how much they loved her work. Eva’s designs inspire love.

In Leningrad’s Butyrka Prison she was also contrarian. When her daily interrogation and emotional battering were over, she wrote poetry using a small stick of wood wrapped in thread from her clothes. Using burnt sugar and cigarette ash as ink, she wrote on the backs of labels from cans she received infrequently in “care packages” from her mother.

The Classic Globlet
- one of a six piece set
(Brent C Brolin)
Castleton, and later her best known set, Hallcraft, were the first allwhite dinnerware sets introduced to the American market – a best seller for years. When the head of a major US glass factory was about to select one of six glassware designs “because the public will like them,” she convinced him to produce a more beautiful and eventually highly successful version by asking him “but which do you like best?”

She pointed out that just because the public were not as well to do or successful as this industrialist, they still had impeccable taste. Beauty – her vision of beauty – won out every time. I am told by someone who worked in the Eames’ studio that Charles and Ray Eames had a simple shapely white vase of Eva’s on one of their desks with a flower to inspire them.

For her, design was health. I believe her passion for design kept her alive over a century; but it was more than design. It was beautiful design; it was beauty itself. Her playful search for beauty didn’t stop with objects. She designed houses, store interiors, a shelving system, chairs and tables, candlesticks, tableware, glasses, Christmas decorations, rugs, a pen and pencil set, a burial urn, and even turned her hand to playwriting.


Eva at work on her Lomonsov coffee pot (Brent C Brolin)

Her portrait sketches are economical and expressive. One of Leó Szilárd, the co-holder (with Fermi) of the patent for the atomic bomb’s chain reaction, was published in the Atlantic Monthly. One of me as a child along with a painting by her of me as a teenager hangs in my home. At the age of 19, one of her drawings won honorable mention in the Hungarian exposition at the 1926 Sesquicentennial Exhibition in Philadelphia.


And she never forgot the people who would experience her work. She called her work “gifts” to them. Her playful search for beauty included all the final users of her designs – those whose lives she influenced through her designs – but not only that. There were also all those she influenced through her sage advice, counsel and vision. Finally, in my work I have met many female professionals whose lives she changed by just being a role

A creative balance of life and work
More than once, when asked if she had a highlight in her long life, she answered, as one blogger reported: “Let us separate my work and my life… the high point in my life was having my two children.

The high point of my work was the Museum Ware by Castleton China. This is my favourite set. I had a show there you know, in 1946.” She knew no boundaries and thus her creative urges spilled out everywhere – into objects and events and into people, among them her children and grandchildren.

Humanity in design: Dinnerware families - shmoos and birds (Brent C Brolin)

Inspired by Eva’s independent spirit and belief in her own creativity, Jean Richards, her daughter, is an actress and writer. Eva’s grandchildren – Jean’s daughter and my sons – were each inspired by Eva to rely on their own creativity and embark on the same playful search for beauty.

Eva's racetrack coffee table (www.evazeiseloriginals.com)
Each works for themselves and each follows their art: Evan Bass Zeisel is a New York filmmaker, actor and improviser. Talisman Brolin is a successful photographer in New York as well. Adam Zeisel lives in Boston and is a creative web entrepreneur of Eva’s “recent” works – those since she was about 90 years old – bringing to others Eva’s work through beauty – carrying on the family tradition.

I take care of people living with dementia using design of the physical environment, and the arts and culture to give people with dementia a life worth living. Eva lives on in all those who learned from her and loved her… in person and through her work.

Dr John Zeisel is chair of the International Academy for Design & Health’s Scientific Committee

References
• Eva Zeisel, TED Talk, On the Playful Search for Beauty (2001) (http://www.ted.com/talks/lang/en/eva_zeisel_on_the_ playful_search_for_beauty.html
• Eva Zeisel: A Soviet Prison Memoir, compiled by Jean Richards & Brent C. Brolin. An e-book available at www. evamemoir.com
• The Eva Zeisel collectors’ and fan club: www.evazeisel.com
• www.evazeiseloriginals.com – Adam Zeisel’s website
• Google “Eva Zeisel” to see more of her work








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