What do you say to a Living Legend? On meeting Eva: It is hard to connect this beautiful, frail person with the iconic Eva. She begins the conversation with her famous: “Now tell me about YOU!” I tell her about the planned large retrospective exhibition of her work at the Mingei Museum, the first on the West Coast. Eva is full of questions: about the Museum, what it will be like. After a tour of her studio she asks, “Do you want anything here for the exhibition? Just choose it!” Instead of my interviewing her, she has interviewed me! And she has offered us everything...what more can you ask? We like to tell our heroes how much we admire their work. When they ask “what about YOU?” there is a genuine one-on-one connection; and with Eva it is always straight from the heart!
Eva Polanyi Striker was born 1906 in Budapest Hungary, then a center of Central Europe’s diverse intellectual life, and a flowering of the arts and architecture. Eva’s extraordinary family included many dynamic women, all part of the intellectual avant-garde of the time. Eva was well educated in fine art, but chose her own path in becoming a potter. Certainly she would have been aware of traditional Hungarian folk pottery as well as the ideas of Walter Crane, who often visited Hungary promoting William Morris’ Craftsman movement.
Eva emerged as a genuine industrial designer with her work in Berlin in the late 1920’s at a time when the Bauhaus had revitalized European design. Her designs from this period still remain fine examples of “art deco” style. Eva’s adventurous journey to Russia, where she met with great success, was abruptly ended by official political paranoia. Fortunate to escape with her life, her friend Arthur Koestler later recounted her terrible experiences in “Darkness at Noon”.
Emigrating to the United States on the eve of World War II, Eva confidently entered the world of commercial design in New York. Her revolutionary all white dinner service for the Museum of Modern Art in 1942 put her on the map as an established designer.
Eva has always been an enthusiastic part of the artistic vanguard. For the more casual lifestyle of post World War II , she designed whimsical, colorful pottery forms. Just as easily, she could design formal tableware in the traditional European style Her “playful search for beauty” produced delightful bird-form table pieces, reminiscent of folk art. With her stamped patterns on stoneware, we see motifs reminiscent of ancient tribal symbols, also seen on Hungarian folk textiles.
From the 1980’s until the present, Eva has enjoyed a unique renaissance. Her work is as fresh and exciting as ever; and it is reaching a whole new generation of enthusiasts. Completing the full circle of her long life, she returned to the Lomonosov porcelain factory in Russia, designing elegant porcelain pieces. Similarly, her return to Hungary to work at the Zsolnay factory, utilized their trademark iridescent glazes for works of great beauty.
In San Diego in December: “I’m learning, I’m learning!” Her natural curiosity about everything is astonishing. Visitors paying homage to her at the exhibition opening were treated so graciously by Eva that each person was able to leave feeling renewed and uniquely validated. We are fortunate guests to be invited to share in Eva Zeisel’s table!
...Joyce Corbett writes from San Diego, California. She is Guest Curator of the Eva Zeisel exhibition at the Mingei International Museum, in whose Communique this article originally appeared.
Eva Zeisel: Extraordinary Designer at 100 opens at the Craft and Folk Art Museum in Los Angeles September 8 and runs through December 30.