The Shape of Life by Eva Zeisel


Eva Zeisel's meteoric rise in the industry started early in her extraordinary life. She was born in 1906 in Hungary into a creative, well-off family that encouraged her art. She left her formal studies in painting at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts to apprentice as a potter. Zeisel became the first female journeyman potter at age eighteen, and by age twenty-two she designed tablewares for Schramberger Majolika Fabrik where she oversaw over 350 workers.

After accepting a position as Artistic Director of the China and Glass Industry in the Soviet Union, she was falsely accused of being part of a plot to assassinate Joseph Stalin. She was jailed for sixteen months, most of which was in solitary confinement, and faced the death penalty. While her alleged co-conspirators were killed, she was spared and set free for unknown reasons, possibly because of aggressive interventions on the part of her family.

After Zeisel was released, she emigrated to the U.S. to flee the Nazis in 1938. Within days of her arrival, she researched leading design companies and began making phone calls. She soon rose to the top of their ranks. She became an influential teacher of ceramic design at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn shortly after coming to the U.S., teaching the first course in the U.S. on ceramic design for mass production. The Museum of Modern Art offered her a show of her Castleton porcelain dinnerware in the mid-40s.

Eva Zeisel revolutionized ceramic design by bringing her own original brand of modernism into American middle class homes with her dinnerware created for Hallcraft, Sears and Red Wing Pottery. Her Castleton Service porcelain was commissioned by the Museum of Modern Art and shown there in 1947, becoming the first one-woman show at the museum. The exhibit was part of a mission of the museum to champion artistically designed, mass-produced objects as being on par with fine art objects.

Zeisel's work recalls modernist sculptures by Jean Arp or Brancusi, yet Zeisel's work functions in a different way: Her biomorphic, abstract designs are intended to be touched, held and used, bringing beauty to the daily lives of the people who use them. They become more like intimate family friends rather than rarefied works of art, works that average person can own and use. Said Zeisel, "To me beauty depends on one single person... looking at something and feels joy in looking at it because it pleases him without second thoughts, irrespective of whether it is useful, whether it is art, or whether it is in good taste. It is the most democratic definition possible: a person high or low, cultured or not, young or old, and of whatever group, can enjoy beauty."

Eva Zeisel seeks an emotional connection with the objects' users. She took the cold formalism of Bauhaus and gave it warmth and feeling. Zeisel is aware of the intimate relationship people have for the objects that contain our food--objects that nourish and nurture, objects that are used for food ritual, that are used for contemplation. She said, "We feel differently, more intimately, about dishes than we do about shoes or chairs or forks. If we unexpectedly come upon a chair like we used when we were children we say, 'We had a chair like that at home.' Bur if we come upon dishes like we used on the dinner table with our parents, we will surely exclaim: 'Look! Our dishes!'". Her spare, anthropomorphic dishes are often asymmetrical and have gestures of living things. Her functional objects bend, stretch, reach. They recall birds, leaves, pregnant bodies, belly buttons and fruit with a pared-down elegance.

Eva Zeisel and others have described her works as playful, and their curves and gestures often do have a playful quality, imbued with individual personalities; yet her process is hardly one of whim. She forms the clay with a sense of the user's touch in mind, molding the clay in her hands while thinking of the user's hands, and viewing the forms from the multiple perspectives from which the viewer would see them. Zeisel refines her designs through numerous drawings from different angles, creating multiple clay models. She says, "Eventually, the things you design will look as if they had just happened, yet they were willed from beginning to end". She uses practical considerations to inspire rather than limit her approach to form. Her designs are expressive, yet are crafted in innovative ways to make them cheaper and easier to use in the home. She designs forms so that they can nest together in a kiln and save kiln (and later cupboard) space, and reduce breakage. These groupings are practical but also aesthetic: pieces look beautiful displayed alone or in groups that echo family units. States Zeisel, "I have rarely designed objects that were meant to stand alone. My designs have family relationships".

This constant eye toward practical innovation caused Eva Zeisel to change her designs to reflect the needs of different eras. For example, during the post-WWII period when women had less time to cook and were fond of one-dish meals, Zeisel designed elegant casserole dishes that could easily move from oven to table. As entertaining became more casual, she designed her Town and Country series, colorful and bold modern stoneware pieces that could be mixed and matched.

Zeisel's mid-20th century ceramic designs were avant-garde at the time but are now recognized as classic. Her timelessly elegant dinnerware from the mid-20th century looks at home in today's kitchen, especially with the current revival of modernist design. Remarked Zeisel: "I have always thought of my own work as a link between the past and the future, not as a break or departure from past styles". As she approaches her 100th birthday, she still has her hand in design, and her older series are being re-issued by Crate and Barrel, KleinReid and The Orange Chicken.

In addition to having her work exhibited in major museums around the world, Zeisel's designs will be the centerpiece for an exhibit now in the works at The British Museum focusing on the creative process behind industrial design.

This retrospective at The Erie Art Museum is comprehensive, spanning more than seventy years, and encompasses many examples of her non-ceramic work as well, including glass and furniture design. The majority of the pieces in the exhibit are from gifts from The Orange Chicken.


Eva Zeisel: The Shape of Life, 2010 The Erie Art Museum celebrates the release of its book Eva Zeisel: The Shape of Life. The work of pioneering ceramist and industrial designer Eva Zeisel is explored in essays and photographs from the Erie Art Museum’s 2005-2007 exhibition featuring Zeisel’s work. The volume contains a plate stamp chronology and critical essays, including an introduction by curator John Vanco, an overview by art writer Lance Esplund, an account of Zeisel’s work with The Orange Chicken, and a reflection on viewers’ engagement with Zeisel through the Museum’s education program.
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