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Eva Zeisel Survived Stalin, Nazis, Created Beauty: Appreciation

“Zsolnay Belly Button Vase (small)”
“Zsolnay Belly Button Vase (small)” (1983) by Eva Zeisel. Based on her earlier stacking “Belly Button Room Dividers,” the body and indentation of this vase suggests a navel, among other forms. Source: Schroeder Romero & Shredder via Bloomberg

Eva Zeisel, who died Friday at 105, designed some of the 20th century’s most seductive objects and survived its greatest horrors.

Arthur Koestler, her lifelong friend and sometime lover, based his novel “Darkness at Noon” (1940) on her nightmare experiences in Russia.

Already at the top of her profession, Zeisel was working in Moscow, when in 1936, she was falsely accused of being sent by Trotsky in a plot to assassinate Stalin.

Imprisoned for 16 months, much of it in solitary confinement, she attempted suicide, wrote poetry, constructed a bra and played chess with herself.

After her surprise release (like Dostoyevsky, Zeisel thought she was to be executed), she narrowly escaped the Nazis, got married to her second husband in England, and in 1938 arrived in New York City.

Her ordeal could break an artist. But Zeisel emerged with the modus operandi: “The playful search for beauty.”

Not Frail

In later years, Zeisel was lovely, wise, severe -- with her white hair and strong yet delicate potter’s hands. She could play the doddering old lady as easily as she could the shrewd businesswoman, but her brilliant eyes betrayed no sense of frailty.

She liked to spin a myth about herself. Denying certain influences (such as that of Jean Arp), Zeisel presented her work as wholly original. It was not. But it doesn’t matter.

Like Picasso, Zeisel absorbed the best of what was going on around her, sometimes stealing designs and doing them better.

Her white “Museum” dinner service (1942-45), commissioned by Eliot Noyes and designed for the Museum of Modern Art, was an improved remake of an earlier set by Trude Petri.

Refined, elegant, neoclassical, the “Museum” pieces appear to bow slightly, like Greco-Roman columns, under the weight of their contents.

Zeisel’s “Museum” service and her “Hallcraft Century” dinner service (c. 1957) are among the most beautiful sets of china made in the 20th century. With their tapered, rising tips, the “Hallcraft Century” nesting bowls and serving platters suggest the fluttering of wings and alighting birds.

I met Zeisel in the late 1990s, but it is primarily through her work that I got to know her. This happens when you sit down to a table enlivened by her dinnerware.

The Evening Meal

That’s where the magic unfolds -- where you sense both Dionysian and Apollonian forces at work. Zeisel loved the daily ritual of the evening meal, and she saw her dishes as major players in that drama.

Unlike Mary and Russel Wright, Zeisel did not apply a “style” to her dinnerware. She created an organic family of forms, thematic variations within a set. Her dishes are humorous, erotic and seductive, suggesting hybrids of plant, animal and human forms. They relate to one another like members of a family and invite you to pick them up and caress them.

Zeisel employs belly buttons and baby’s bottoms and especially birds, whose open mouths pour cream into your coffee. It is not surprising that while living in Emile Nolde’s Berlin studio in her twenties, she belonged to a Dadaist cabaret called “The Green Donkey,” which staged concerts of typewriters and sewing machines.

She is best known for her biomorphic dishes that transcend function to become abstract sculpture.

The famous “Town and Country” salt and pepper shakers Zeisel designed for Red Wing (c. 1946) suggest a mother cradling her child, an Arp sculpture and a pair of spent lovers.

Like Dancers

Zeisel’s hourglass-shaped candlesticks are poised like ballerinas. Collapsible, interlocking wooden tables, reminiscent of Romanesque carving, sea serpents and wild vegetation, convey a baroque extravagance. “Rabbit Syrup Pitchers” seem to mold to the palm of your hand.

Zeisel’s career fluctuated greatly. She was given a one-person show at MoMA in 1946. In the late 1990s, semi-retired, she was pushing her wares at the Rockland County Fair.

Some of Zeisel’s business ventures ended in the courtroom - - she was difficult. But in the end, her work sustains her reputation as a master designer.

Zeisel took to heart the Bauhaus dictum that the highest form of industry is to mass produce works of art. Through her nine-decade career, and long before IKEA and Pottery Barn, she brought Modernism into the home, especially in the United States.

In her best designs, Modernist simplicity is never reductive but, rather, the purest expression of beauty through metaphor and an economy of means. To sit down at the table with Zeisel’s china is not simply to dine but to engage with art.

See her work through Feb. 11 in New York City at Schroeder Romero & Shredder in “Eva Zeisel: Important Works of 20th Century Design.”

(Lance Esplund is U.S. art critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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