By Jed Perl
When you sit down at a table set with an array of cups, bowls, plates and platters designed by Eva Zeisel, you are in the presence of transcendent utilitarianism. Zeisel’s dinner plate holds a main dish. Cream pours from her creamer. But there’s so much more going on here. A surprise tilt or shift from circle to oval gives that dinner plate an aura of unconventionality, of lyricism, of drama. And as you pick up the creamer, you notice that the spout leans toward your coffee cup in an especially friendly, even seductive way, almost as if a little conversation were about to begin.
There are elements of the magician, the poet, and the joker in everything that Eva Zeisel does. Seeing her objects next to one another, I know that stories are unfolding. Zeisel is a philosopher of the table top; she imagines all the relationships that can develop in a community of forms. The connections that she establishes among a dinner plate, a salad plate, and a butter dish suggest evolutionary changes. Zeisel creates relationships that feel organic, but she gives those relationships a phantasmagorical dimension. She turns table settings into magical kingdoms. Ans as if that weren’t enough, in recent years she has started to design the tables. And there are room dividers. And shelves. And chairs.
From the quirky geometry of the work that she did in Germany in the late 1920s, through the sensuously elegant Hallcraft dinnerware of the 1950s, all the way to some of the romantically gleaming vases of recent years, Zeisel time and time again has achieved fullness without excess. Born in Budapest in 1906, she worked in Germany and in Russia before emigrating to the United States in 1938. Here she became a leader in industrial ceramics, one of the key figures during the postwar boom in experimentation. She had a one-woman exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in 1946. She taught several generations of designers at Pratt Institute. A 1984 retrospective organized by the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Montreal subsequently toured the United States.
Eva Zeisel has been no stranger to the social upheavals of this century, and she has responded by inventing forms and families of forms that crystallize the tastes and manners of different decades and, indeed, of two different continents. She has an intuitive period sense, so that certain of her designs can seem to epitomize the spirit of the ‘30s, the ‘40s, the ‘50s, and even the ‘80s. Yet there is obviously something more than intuition involved in the staying power of her images. Zeisel has a strategist’s synthesizing imagination. When she designs a coffee set or a dinner service she is marshaling her forces. In smaller projects, she romances the practicalities. At other times, she sets in motion epic mealtime narratives. The dinner service which she designed for Hallcraft is beguilingly Homeric in its variety of forms and its serried forces.
Part of what has always been so appealing about Zeisel’s work is her iconoclastic view of what modern design – and, indeed, modern life – is all about. She celebrates the voluptuous and the fantastical. She gives us a winking, twinkling, seductive modernity. She’s not afraid of our half-submerged rococo or baroque impulses. She believes that even the form that follows the function can dance a little gavotte. There’s some of the good old Bauhaus spirit to what Zeisel does. In her belief that quality industrial design can be delivered to an ever-growing population, she is absolutely a figure of her time. But there’s also an undercurrent of Biedermeier elegance and comfort that permeates these forms. Zeisel’s work is so rich and so varied that it quite naturally defies summary. Perhaps this is why her achievement has not yet been fully understood. What better time than right now, at the end of a great century of design, to come to grips with the accomplishments of this woman whose name begins with a z?