Profile – Eva Zeisel

Design is populated with earnest young things, but more senior players can take heart from Eva Zeisel, who is still pitching for work at 103. Hannah Booth tracks down the ceramics artist with a life story few can match

Cuban-born artist Carmen Herrera’s recent elevation to ’next big thing’ in the art world, at the age of 94, has kick-started a debate about age and creativity – at a time when youth and vigour are prized above all else, are people finally learning to value age and experience?

At 103, ceramics designer Eva Zeisel has nearly ten years on Herrera, and she’s still designing, even pitching for work. ’It’s more fun than sitting around waiting for something to happen,’ she says.

Shortly after her 100th birthday, Zeisel, who lives in New York, sent some drawings to The Rug Company in London – tile designs she thought might translate well into rugs, which she’d never designed before. ’I’ve been working for so long, most of my work is on commission. But occasionally I send an idea to a company, cold,’ says Zeisel. The Rug Company loved them. ’It told me they were “forward-looking”,’ she says. ’It’s lovely to be 100 years old and “forward-looking”.’ The collection launched last summer.

At well into her second century, Zeisel has something young upstarts can’t fake – life experience. She was born in Hungary in 1906 into a wealthy, intellectual family. She joined the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Budapest when she was 17 and planned on becoming a painter, but her more practical mother said she should learn a trade that could support her. So she apprenticed herself to the last medieval guild potter in Hungary, and learned ceramics from the ground up.

In 1932, she visited Russia. ’I was attracted to the intellectual and social movements, and returned to work there. My first job wasvisiting ceramics factories – I remember racing over the snow at night in a horse-drawn sleigh, with wolves howling all around,’ she recalls.

In 1935, Zeisel was appointed artistic director for the porcelain and glass industries for the entire country. A year later, she was accused of participating in a plot to kill Stalin, and imprisoned for 16 months. It was a life-changing experience.

’I was interrogated – they wanted me to confess to something I didn’t do,’ she says. ’But my mother was active on my behalf, and she asked influential friends to write to Stalin to get me out. They finally released me and put me on a train direct to Austria.’

In Vienna, she married Hans Zeisel in 1938 and shortly after, with Hitler on the march, the couple fled to New York with £50 to their name. ’As soon as I arrived, I went to the public library and found a design magazine. I went to see the editor and said she had a very good magazine, I was a very good designer, and did she have any ideas for me. She sent me to a manufacturer’s representative, who placed an order for a children’ tea set, for £60.’ Zeisel designed a porcelain set for Castleton in 1946, the first-ever undecorated white table china, and that same year, New York’s Museum of Modern Art gave her a one-woman show/ she was on the map.

She has since worked with various international companies, including Royal Stafford, which bought out the One-0-One collection – a reference to her age – two years ago. Her pieces from the 1930s are now highly collectable.

She has two current projects: a series of glass lamps for New York-based Baldinger Lighting, and a set of ceramic tiles for New England manufacturer Trikeenan. ’I am inspired by natural forms, particularly the human body,’ says Zeisel. ’I like rounded shapes rather than angular ones. I’m not interested in being innovative, per se, but rather in making friendly, attractive forms.’

Zeisel was given an honorary doctorate from London’s Royal College of Art in 1988, and made an honorary Royal Designer for Industry in 2004. ’I particularly enjoyed getting the RCA award – my whole family came over to London to celebrate,’ she says.

What are the downsides of working at such a grand old age? ’Design ideas come more easily when you’re young,’ she says. Robin Day, another ageing icon, would agree. ’I get tired now, and probably lack enthusiasm, though I still design – I would hate to stop,’ he said in 2005 aged 90.

As Herrera shows, talent shines at any age, so we need to value the Days and Zeisels of our industry.

Hide Comments (3)Show Comments (3)
  • Roz Harding November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

    Hi Roz

    I found this interesting
    and thought you might too.


  • Tracey Hudd November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

    It’s inspiring to see that age and experience counts for something, while so many companies want to take on graduates and volunteers, maybe their budget has something to do with it?

  • Adam Zeisel November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

    Big companies might be scared of the unknown. The “sure thing” is easily defined with dollars and cents – a crisp degree is safer to invest in than a life’s work of exceptionally beautiful designs. Wait? What?!!! Oh right, that’s why the Eva’s and Days are in a class all by themselves.

    Proud to call her my grandmother… 🙂

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