At work, I have a conference room that is used for my team's design critiques and meetings. When I first got access to it, it was named Hal 9000, and while I appreciate the dark brilliance of “2001: A Space Odyssey,” I had a sneaking suspicion that my conference room was going to unexpectedly turn on me some day. So I changed the name, dedicating it instead to someone I have long admired. We all need heroes; mine happens to be Eva Zeisel, a recently departed 105-year-old ceramics designer.
Eva Zeisel has been an inspiration to me in my work and my life for years. The story of how I first came to discover her, and all the things I've learned about her since, reflects my own evolving set of professional and personal values, the kind of work I want to do, and indeed the kind of woman, mother, and designer I want to be.
By naming the conference room after her, I ensured that I would be seeing and saying her name dozens of times every day, and be asked constantly by my co-workers, “Who is Eva Zeisel?” I start innumerable meetings with a few minutes of inspiration about this woman, this legend, whom I aspire to be like. I try not to have many regrets in my life, but I do regret never actively trying to meet her while she was still with us; just to be in her presence would have been something I would have cherished. Alas, I have instead become an avid student of her life and work through books, images, videos, and the stories of those lucky enough to have known her and worked with her. She is an incredibly important but not very well known figure in design, and so I want to share with you some of what I have learned about her life and her work, so maybe she can be your hero, too.
Discovering Eva During The Great Purge Of 2006
I studied art history in high school and college, but focused on the fine arts of painting, sculpture, and photography versus studying the history of design. So I was never introduced to Eva Zeisel as a student. I was introduced to her work about 8 years ago, around the time my husband and I were celebrating our 10th anniversary. I was in a mode of streamlining our lives, and purging our home of all the things we had accumulated but didn't serve a purpose. It was a decidedly anti-sentimental phase of my life, and my husband joked that if something didn't serve a daily purpose or have our genetic material in it (ie, one of our three children), it was headed to Goodwill. A key focus for me was housewares. How had I accumulated so many sets of dishes in 10 years? Not only did we have “everyday dishes” but there was also formal china and crystal from my wedding, and even Spode Christmas plates. Why on earth had I thought it was a good idea to have a set of plates that get used only one day out of the whole year?
So I celebrated our 10th wedding anniversary by selling all my wedding china and crystal on ebay. We hardly ever used any of it, and more importantly I'd become aesthetically allergic to too much ornamentation over the years, preferring sleeker, more modern designs for housewares. I didn't like the idea of being weighed down by this formal albatross which never seemed in sync with my values and day to day living. My mother was horrified. She thought I should hold onto it all for my own daughters, but I told her, 'Why? So they could then feel guilty about not wanting it 30 years from now? Let's stop the madness now."
I searched for a new set of plates that would work for anything and everything, and lucky for me, this search coincided with Crate and Barrel's reissue of Eva Zeisel's Century dinnerware.
I admired the simplicity and organic nature of the forms in the collection; so different and such a relief from the overly ornate and visually extroverted traditional china patterns. I thought to myself, "I could live with these for a long, long time," and this has proven to be true. I still delight in taking them out every single day. They seem to work for everything: macaroni and cheese AND Christmas feast. They don't call too much attention to themselves, but they also seem to elevate everything that is placed on them. Not long after I found them, these plates would play a critical role in one of the largest redesigns in the history of the internet. But that's a subject for a future blog post :)
As I grew more and more in love with my new dinnerware, I became more interested in the woman who designed them. I started to read about her life and explore her larger body of work. And I was hooked.
Her Extraordinary, Improbable Life
In a world of flash-in-the-pan celebrity and overnight success, I have always found Eva's story of a lifetime of determination, independence, hard work and overcoming of obstacles as exceptionally inspiring. She was born to a highly educated family in Budapest, Hungary, in 1906. Her mother was the first woman ever to receive a PhD from the University of Budapest, and her family was filled with intellectuals who excelled in the sciences. Eva, on the other hand, was attracted to the arts, and eventually decided to apprentice herself to the last pottery master from the medieval guild, and started her long and illustrious career as an industrial designer.
She spent several years in the highly innovative arts scene of Berlin before deciding to move, on her own at the age of 26, to Soviet Russia. According to the documentary film “Throwing Curves”, Eva was drawn to the social experiment of the USSR, stating that she wanted to find out “what was behind the mountain.” She was particularly intrigued with the challenge of mass production of goods for the massive Russian peasant population. At one point during her stint as artistic director of the Russian China and Glass industry, she was asked to design a plate that could be produced for over 100 million peasants. The challenge of designing for that scale of usage fascinated her, and the idea of bringing good, accessible, appealing design to the masses drove her work.
After living in Russia for 5 years, late one night she was arrested and accused of plotting to kill Joseph Stalin. She was imprisoned for 16 months, and 12 of those months were in solitary confinement. Her descriptions of that time were poignant: no human interaction, no color, no nature. She had to reinvent what time meant, because she could not bear to think about the past, and would now allow herself to think about the future, for she was sure each and every day that the authorities would kill her. Then, one day, she was released. To this day, no one knows why she was let go. She was expelled from Russia, moved to Vienna, and re-established contact with her future husband, Hans Zeisel, who had waited for her through her incarceration. She suffered from what we would now describe as post-traumatic stress; this once independent young woman had lost much of her confidence and had a hard time re-engaging in society. Hans took care of her after her release, helping her acclimate to freedom. But that sense of security and safety did not last for long.
Zeisel was Jewish, and within months of moving to Vienna, the Nazis occupied Austria. Eva took the last train out, escaping to England. She and Hans married and with $67 in their pockets, started a new life in the US. She immediately pounded the pavement looking to design for US manufacturers, and she was hired by several major companies to design sophisticated yet approachable and affordable collections for the everyday family and home.
Her impact on modern household goods design was acknowledged when the Museum of Modern Art in New York organized an exhibit of her work in 1947, which was the first show the museum had ever hosted dedicated to a single woman designer, and also the first about contemporary ceramics. She designed a dinnerware set for MOMA called Museum Ware, and it was the first all-white dinnerware set ever produced in the United States. It was controversial, it was spectacular, and it made Eva famous.
She worked her whole life, and even five years beyond her 100th birthday, staying engaged in her craft and her calling. In the documentary film “Throwing Curves”, her daughter Jean says that even in her later years, she was always up for adventure, for travel, for discovery. She had a strong drive to make things which helped her build a career spanning nearly eight decades. And she somehow balanced being one of the most influential designers of the last century with being a wife and mother. About 6 months before her passing, a visitor to her home asked Eva what the highlight of her life was; she told him, “Let us separate my work and my life… the high point in my life was having my two children. The high point of my work was the Museum Ware by Castleton China. This is my favorite set. I had a show there [at MoMA] you know, in 1947.”
She died at the age of 105 on December 30, 2011, with numerous design projects in flight, continuing her “playful search for beauty,” as she called it.
Her Remarkable Work
Eva Zeisel is best known for her work in ceramics, but she also designed glassware, furniture, and textiles. Though her best known designs are now over half a century old, they still appear fresh and modern to us today.
There is something about her work that I find appealing and approachable. Perhaps it is a the unapologetic feminine, curvilinear shapes that make them so inviting and even comforting. They beckon you to touch them, hold them; these are not precious, formal objects to be stored away for a special occasion. And even if you are seeing a particular object for the first time, you have a sense of already knowing it. She brought humanism to machine design. Her aesthetic was in many ways a reaction against the Bauhaus, with it's rigid angularity and machine-driven aesthetic. Eva's designs, in contrast, are round, organic, biomorphic. She often featured a mother and child motif in her work, as well as birds, which are likely the influence of Hungarian folks art from her youth.
Her commitment to mass production versus handcrafted goods made her designs affordable to the masses and helped her influence grow; she was only interested in working at scale, and wanted to make good design accessible to all. She believed women should play a critical role in designing the objects they lived with and used, instead of letting men do it for them.
Her work is often designed to be nested and stacked, adding to its practicality, cleverness, and beauty. Throughout her career, she rejected the notion that modern design was necessarily cold, hard, and machine-driven. It could and should be warm, witty, natural, round, and a joy to behold, to live with, and to use. She insisted on humanity as an essential ingredient in good design.
So much of what we see in contemporary tableware design is derivative of her work. Her designs are simple and often without any additional decoration beyond their beautiful form. Standing alone, they are lovely objects to behold, but when you use them as a part of the set table, they showcase the food or the flowers, and don't call too much attention to themselves. In that moment, they are in service of a greater purpose: helping people live their lives with comfort and beauty.
Her Words (And Some of My Own)
“I am a maker of useful things.
Her most famous statement, and the battle cry of the designer. I say battle because it feels that way sometimes. Doing great work that matters to many people is very hard, but knowing that your creativity is being used to solve real problems and hopefully improve people's lives is, for me, a huge motivator in overcoming the inevitable challenges that arise. And the word maker is hugely important as well. We aren't engaged in an intellectual, academic pursuit; we are here to make real things. Hopefully, we will succeed in making useful things, and if we are really, really good, we may succeed in making beautiful, useful things. That's what Eva Zeisel did.
“It always looks like I'm playing, but I'm not; this is serious.”
Design process sometimes looks from the outside to be random, disorganized, without focus. Eva often described herself as engaged in a “playful search for beauty”, and this notion of play had a strong influence in her work and her process. It reminds me of the philosophies of my graduate school mentor, Red Burns, who also believed that important things were discovered through play. Designers need to go wide and sometimes veer into seemingly unrelated territory in order to circle back to the right solution. Extreme efficiency is often an inhibitor to a good outcome.
“I'm not doing anything out of self-expression; I'm trying to be kind to my recipient.”
I love how she calls the person for whom she is designing a “recipient”. And she clearly differentiates what she is doing - designing beautiful but practical and useful things - from art driven by self-expression. That, too, is a worthy goal, but it should not be confused with practical design. This kind of work is not about the designer, the designer's ego, or their portfolio, but about the recipient, and how the design can make life better.
“When I design something, I think of it as a gift to somebody else.”
What a lovely notion! And what a great way to frame the work and the importance of craft. In the tech industry, we are so often in a rush to get things out the door that we often don't take the time to get the fit and finish, the craft of what we do, right. But you would never give a gift to someone important to you that was sloppily made, cracked, or chipped. It would cheapen the act of giving and show a lack of respect and love for the recipient.
“When you begin your work, nothing exists. When it is finished it looks as if it just happened, spontaneously, effortlessly, convincingly. It looks as though it had been there all along.”
Great design seems completely obvious in hindsight, and it's easy to see Eva's work in that way. But her work was revolutionary and inspired, and continues to inspire, generations of designers. We now take for granted the clean,round lines of Museum Ware, but imagine if you'd never seen an all white dinnerware set; it must have felt radical when it first appeared. It was useful and beautiful, yes, but it also challenged societal norms and traditions, moving us into a new age of modernity. Fearlessness in challenging the status quo is a critical tool in the work of a designer.
“I don't like to design single objects. I like my pieces to have a relationship to each other. They can be mother and child, like the Schmoo salt and pepper shakers, or brother and sister like the Birdie salt and peppers, or cousins, like most of my dinnerware sets.”
I love this quote because it shows how nature and human-centered her approach is to her work; the metaphors are consistently about people and relationships and the nature world. It also shows that she was a systems thinker; she didn't see her designs in isolation from each other, and thought deeply about the relationship between objects. This kind of systems and relationship orientation is critical to designing large scale digital systems where even small changes in one area of the experience have sometimes huge, even if unintended, consequences.
“When I met my designs in the market of a remote village in the West Indies, or in the airport restaurant in Zurich, I felt like the mother of many well-behaved children.”
I love that Eva excelled at mass production but still clearly cherished the things she made. She was a most fertile mother! As a designer, it's important to think about the long term impact of what you are doing today; you designs don't just disappear the moment you move onto something else. They are incorporated into people's lives, and if you are good at what you do, they can stay relevant for a very long time. That sense of raising good children and and wanting them to be well-behaved is a lovely notion and one that only a working mother would be likely to come up with :)
“My designs are meant to attract the hand as well as the eye.”
She was way ahead of her time with respect to ergonomics. Her bowls, her cups, and her platters understood the human form and incorporated and accommodated the human use of the object into the object itself. And her designs somehow invite you to take them up, to hold them and use them. After all, what good is a utilitarian object that gets no use? Then it's just a knickknack.
“Because I was a designer and not an intellectual, I felt I was never grown up. I grew old without ever becoming an adult.”
I was so relieved to hear her say this in the “Throwing Curves” documentary. I think “growing up” is the end when you are creative. Indeed, we all start out creative as children, and then in a misguided attempt to educate us, we are often robbed of our creativity and our creative confidence. Holding on to the child inside of you is critical, because it is the thing that helps you audaciously engage in big challenges and bounce back from inevitable failure. And it helps you see how important play is in the invention of new things.
“If you try to do something perfect, I think this is the last time you do anything.”
Though she was driven to excellence, she also had pragmatism about the importance of getting her work made and into the hands of people. If you watch videos of her in collaboration with her assistants, collaborators, and manufacturers, she is very matter of fact about what she wants. There are no histrionics or petulant demands. Somehow she found the balance in her pursuit of excellence and in avoiding the pitfall of things never being perfect enough to release. It's what all designers must strive for, especially in the digital realm.
“Beautiful things make people happy.”
I love that she never felt a conflict between her search for beauty and her role as industrial designer of mass produced housewares. And I love that she interpreted beauty as natural, human, simple, and clean. She understood that good design didn't need to lose its soul in the pursuit of utility and modernity. In fact, it mustn't.
“I don't know the difference between working and not working.”
When your work is creative and is about making things, the line between working and not work is extremely fuzzy. Creative minds like Eva's don't go on vacation; every day, ever experience, every taste, touch and sound is material being gathered for some future endeavor. This can be exhausting and confusing to those who have other callings in life, callings that can be more easily compartmentalized. As I write this blog post, I am on vacation in the Berkshire Mountains of Western Massachusetts. Friends and family mock me for not being able to sit still. If I turn “work” off, that means turning off my email and my project work for my job back at Facebook, but it means turning on a host of other things: learning a new drawing technique, learning how to make pickles, knitting a new pattern, making pies, visiting a factory, watching dancers, collecting leaves. To me, this is work too, and I never want to turn it off.
And last but not least, I love this quote which speaks to the natural drive of the maker, and one who feels a kinship with nature and her past, as well as maintaining a sense of humor...
“When you have clay in your hands, it's hard to avoid making birds.”
RIP, Eva Zeisel. Your work, your ideals, and even your birds live on.
References & Resources
“Throwing Curves”, a documentary film about the life and work of Eva Zeisel, available on DVD and online rental through Canobie films
Eva Zeisel's Prison Memoir, available through the online magazine A Public Space ($36/annual subscription)
Eva Zeisel, Wikipedia
Eva Zeisel, Ceramic Artist and Designer, Dies at 105, New York Times