pen rainbow

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Wednesday—Good for You, Good for the Home: Eva Zeisel

When asked how to make something beautiful:  "You just have to get out of the way."  ~Eva Zeisel  1906  - 2011
Steve Jobs talked about the influence that simple, organic design had on his personal sense of aesthetics when it came to designing Apple products.  Apple II's clean lines and beige housing were inspired by the smooth, plastic casing of a kitchen appliance—the Cuisinart food processor.  Hooray for kitchen appliances!

As it turns out, the inventor of the Cuisinart was an MIT-educated electrical engineer named Carl Sontheimer, a native New Yorker who developed a love of cooking while growing up in France.  Cuisine + art = Cuisinart!  

Retro blenders on display at the Oakland Airport

Mid-Century Modernist Design
When optimal aesthetics and optimal usage are in balance, we have good industrial design.  This is where Hungarian-born designer, Eva Zeisel made her mark.  She, along with other mid-century modernists like Mary & Russel Wright and Charles & Ray Eames, brought relaxed elegance and Bauhaus style to the dinner tables and living rooms of middle-class Americans.

Her History
Like Steve Jobs, Eva was a college drop-out.  Inspired by her aunt's peasant pottery collection, she withdrew after three semesters from the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Budapest and began a journeyman's apprenticeship with a member of the guild of chimney sweepers, oven makers, roof tilers, well diggers and potters.  As a 19-year old journeyman, she traveled to Paris and visited the Exposition Internationale des Arts D√©coratifs et Industriels Modernes, where Art Deco originated and her exposure to modernist design began.  Her initial impression was that the modernist style was too cold and lacked humanity.

By 1928, she was designing tableware for a ceramics manufacturer in Germany.  She moved to Berlin in 1930 and immersed herself in German and Bauhaus modernism.  By 1935, she was working at the former imperial porcelain factory in Leningrad, Russia.  While working with classic designs, she realized that the clean lines of modernism could be combined with the graceful elegance of traditional ceramics.  

In 1936, while working in Moscow as the artisic director of the Russian republic's china and glass industry, she was arrested and falsely accused of trying to assassinate Stalin.  She spent sixteen months in prison, twelve of those months in solitary confinement.  She was released without explanation in 1937 and expelled to Vienna.  During this time, she re-established contact with her future husband, a lawyer/sociologist named Hans Zeisel, and shortly after the Nazis invaded Vienna, she took the last train out to Britain.  They reconnected in England, married, and emigrated to the United States.

In 1939, she began teaching ceramics as industrial design rather than craft at the Pratt Institue in Brooklyn.  It was during this time at Pratt that she was commissioned by Castleton China in Pennsylvania to create a modernist line of dinnerware for the Museum of Modern Art.   The organically fluid "Museum" table service was released in 1946, resulting in critical acclaim and commercial success in the U.S.  

Hallcraft — A commercially successful line
of Eva Zeisel tableware

Commercial Success
Ms. Zeisel continued to work as an industrial designer for the rest of her life, though not as much in the area of commercial production as in the decorative arts.  She helped define mid-century modern style by infusing everyday household objects with humanity and humor.  She often said that the playful shapes and gentle curves of her tableware were inspired by the interplay between mother and child.  

Want some updated Eva Zeisel dinnerware of your own?  The smart folks at Crate and Barrel have created a line that is based on her Hallcraft designs:

Crate & Barrel's Eva Zeisel reproduction Hallcraft dinnerware — Classic Century