This Day in Jewish History, 1906

A Master Designer With a Madness for Beauty Is Born

As Eva Zeisel later quipped, 'Stalin wanted every Russian peasant to have a cup and a bowl, and I designed them.'

In 1936, Stalin decided that Zeisel had been part of a plan to assassinate him, and she was arrested. For 16 months she was held in Leningrad’s Butyrka Prison, 12 of them in solitary.
Courtesy of the Eva Zeisel Archive

November 13, 1906, is the birthdate of Eva Zeisel, the artist and industrial designer whose globally recognized houseware designs offer a gentle, seductive counterpoint to the sharp edges of Modernism. Her life spanned more than a century, and the experiences she had – including more than a year in Stalin's prisons – could have filled two lifetimes.

va Amália Striker was born in Budapest when it was still part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Her father, Sandor Striker, owned a textile factory.  Her mother, the former Laura Polanyi, a historian, was the first woman to earn a Ph.D. from the University of Budapest. When she was living in the United States, Polanyi redeemed the reputation of Capt. John Smith (of Jamestown and Pocahontas fame) by establishing that his reports of his exploits in Transylvania before reached the New World in 1607 were true.

Eva entered the Hungarian Royal Academy of Fine Arts to study painting but left after her introduction to ceramics. Instead, she arranged to be apprenticed to Jakob Karapancsik, the last remaining pottery master in the Hungarian Guild of Chimney Sweeps, Oven Makers, Roof Tilers, Well Diggers and Potters.

Moving to decadent Berlin

Following her training, Eva began working, first in Hungary, then in Hamburg, then, in 1928, in the Black Forest plant of the Schramberg company, for which she designed hundreds of pieces of dishware. Two years later, she moved to gay and decadent Weimar Berlin, where she designed for Carstens china works.

In 1932, Zeisel, enchanted by the folk art she was seeing emerging from the Soviet Union, visited Kharkov, Ukraine. She stayed on, taking increasingly important jobs before, in 1935, being named artistic director of the centralized Soviet china and glass industry.

As she later liked to describe it, “Stalin wanted every Russian peasant to have a cup and a bowl, and I designed them.”

Later, however, Stalin decided that Zeisel had been part of a plan to assassinate him, and she was arrested. For 16 months she was held in Leningrad’s Butyrka Prison, 12 of them in solitary.

Under arrest in Leningrad

According to the introduction by her daughter, Jean Richards, to Zeisel’s 2000 memoir about her Soviet imprisonment, Eva came close to being executed, and was only saved by a decision of Stalin, who seems to have been influenced by an intense campaign launched by Laura Polanyi Striker on her daughter’s behalf.  When he wrote his novel "Darkness at Noon," in 1940, Arthur Koestler, a lifelong friend, incorporated into it some of Eva's harrowing tales of her imprisonment.

After her release, Zeisel was deported to Vienna, where she re-encountered and became engaged to a former friend, Hans Zeisel, a young legal scholar and statistician. Hans went to London, where Eva soon joined him, departing Vienna the same day the German army marched in.

After the couple married, they sailed for the U.S., where Hans become a professor at the University of Chicago Law School.

In the U.S., Zeisel quickly established herself both as a teacher and as a ceramics designer. By 1946, the Museum of Modern Art, in New York, and Castleton China commissioned her to design a set of undecorated porcelain dishware, which was displayed at the museum and sold in its gift shop.  [not clear who commissioned it]

In the decades that followed, many of Zeisel's designs (which by her own count exceeded 100,000 over her lifetime) -- for Hallcraft China, Red Wing Potteries, Crate & Barrel, Nambe and many others – became instant classics. These included a set of salt-and-pepper shakers that came to be called Shmoos, after the lovable amorphous characters drawn by Al Capp in his comic strip "Li'l Abner," which were apparently inspired by Zeisel's design. Today, they are still sold, by, among others her grandson Adam Zeisel, via the website evazeiselorginals.com.

Zeisel wrote at one point how, when she would encounter one of her designs, "in a remote village in Western India or in the restaurant at Zurich Airport, I feel like a mother who has many well-behaved children all over the world."

She continuing working almost until her death, on December 30, 2011, at age 105, and remained witty and sharp to the end.