Eva Zeisel was born in 1906 in Hungary and grew up to become a world-renowned designer, initially working with ceramics, but later on working with all kinds of other materials, including glass, textiles, metal and wood. She might say, though, that her favorite material is ‘air’, the medium in which she first ‘sees’ the form of a design. You have seen her best-selling dinner service in Crate&Barrel’s store windows, and many other design pieces are included in major museum collections all over the world. As a young woman she worked in both Germany and Russia in the 1920s and 30s, in the era of Bauhaus but also in the era of rising fascism. She became the director of a major Russian ceramics company but her success was short-lived. No one really knows why, least of all Eva herself, but she was imprisoned by Stalin for 16 months, 12 months of which were spent in solitary confinement, and her experiences were the basis of “Darkness at Noon” written by her childhood sweetheart, Arthur Koestler. She was released and deported to Austria and from there, together with her husband, emigrated to the US in 1938. Fewer than 10 years later, in 1946, she had her first one-woman show at MoMa.
We interviewed her in her Upper West Side apartment and at 101 years old, her mind was perfectly clear. Her answers to our questions had a poetic quality, not unlike her work.
Out of all the countries you have lived in, do you have a favorite?
Wherever I am, I like it.
What do you remember from when you were a girl in Budapest?
I remember a big street and at the end is this little bit of a park … I remember Budapest very well … did you see the apartment?
Yes. We love all your teapots, you seem to have made so many different ones.
Well, if you’re a dish designer, you make teapots, and casseroles, and plates, and bowls …
But I was just thinking a teapot is a particularly beautiful shape. It’s so fat and round and it holds something that makes people feel good …
It is a feeling of being invited to a tea party.
I read somewhere that you say your work has always been ‘the playful search for beauty’. Has your life been about that?
Yes, that has been my motto for many years.
What about the hard times when you were in prison?
Well, I don’t remember that every day. It’s not such a pleasant thing, so I don’t think about it all the time, or very rarely.
Do you think that is the way to try and be happy, to not think about sad things?
Of course. If you think of beautiful things, you’re not sad.
It’s not always easy to do that.
Well, you live from the inside out, not from the outside in. You must live your happy life with your happy thoughts.
When you are going to make something, how do you begin to think about it?
In my hands. Look [she lifts both hands and begins to trace, conjuring a graceful shape upon the air] Did you see it in the air?
You look like a magician!
You don’t like hard edges, you like round forms.
Your work makes me think of music.
It’s nice to hear from the air some lovely music. It’s still in the air [indicating the ‘shape’she just traced] I can show it to you in the air. [she does it again] It has a lid on it.
Do you still think of new things you want to make?
I can’t stop thinking of making things. What would I do?
Get bored I suppose.
Yes. I can’t just listen to the air. You have to do something positive.
You lived in Russia and Germany in the 1930s. These were very stimulating places at the time, but they were also dangerous places.
What was it like in Russia then?
At some point there was starvation, very hungry. As a foreigner I was never hungry, but around me. It was a sad place.
This was when Stalin put you into prison.
It’s never nice in prison.
Sixteen months you were there … do you talk about that time?
If you ask me.
What can you tell us about that experience?
I was very much living in my thoughts. I had to fill my time with programmatic thoughts. I was thinking ‘How would I construct a good bra?’ I walked up and down in my cell from corner to corner. I had a little bench and a table which folded up. I was alone for a long time. I think I was allowed to walk in the prison courtyard for 7 minutes.
How did prison change you?
I don’t think it particularly changed me.
Did you ever expect to have this kind of success?
I was a normal young lady from Budapest.
Lots of the paintings in your apartment are religious paintings. Are you religious?
Not really. But when you are very close to death, you are always religious. [smiles]
What are the consolations of growing old?
The present, because there’s hardly any future left. [turns to her assistant] How old am I?
[her assistant tells her she is 101 years old] … at 101 you don’t have much to look forward to, you look back.
What sort of treats do you like?
[Her assistant says ‘You like eating lots of chocolate.’] What a thing to tell them! She made this up.