Sunday, August 17, 2008

Objects of Affection, Part 1

The past few days I've been emailing back and forth with my new colleague, Julka Almquist, who will be teaching a new course in design ethnography at Art Center. I find we are both Eva Zeisel fans. I was reminded of a piece I wrote back in 1996 for presentation at the IDSA National Education Conference. It describes, in a very personal way, my first meeting with Eva and the impact this meeting had on me. I met her in the early 90s, at the start of a renaissance of interest in her work. Today, of course, she's the talk of every design magazine and newspaper. It was a night to remember, as I was not alone—with me came Sara Little Turnbull, another giant figure in design. I will post the piece that I wrote about our meeting—Objects of Affection—in several episodes over the next few days. I hope you enjoy it.

Once upon a time in a library, I found a book which changed my life. It is called Eva Zeisel: Designer for Industry. I like the sound of that. Inside, there’s a photo of Eva, suitcase in hand, just arrived at a small midwestern train stop, setting off across a field towards a factory in the distance. The Designer for Industry, come to do her job. 

The front cover shows a nested group of serving dishes, the shapes splashing outward in a corona of liquid white. The curving edges of the platters unfold upward, tapering and thinning as they stretch toward the gripping-places, inviting the touch of a hand. 

I paged through the book to find shapes I had known all my life: the salt and pepper shakers nestling together like mother and child; glassware remembered from a thousand neighborhood dinner tables. Table furnishings from my childhood, looked at with my designer’s eyes. I had no idea shapes could be like this.

Eva Zeisel worked and lived through the flash points of the modern movement. A journeyman-potter with a studio in her parent’s garden in 1925 Vienna, when young women from well-to-do families didn’t do such things. A studio in Berlin in the 30s, when the design world was being set afire, and Berlin was the place to be. Art Director of the china and glass industry for the Russian Republic in 1935, when Russia was an exciting but dangerous place to be. Falsely accused of plotting to kill Stalin, imprisoned and interrogated for months and then miraculously released. She escaped from Austria the day Hitler invaded. She eventually settled in New York, set up a studio and taught at Pratt for many years.

Throughout this explosion of living, Eva created many, many designs of tableware for manufacturers here, in Europe and Japan. At the height of her popularity from the 40s to the 60s, thousands of her designs were selling successfully all over the world. I studied the photographs in the catalogue. The shapes full of life, expressive. Astonishing. The curves seemed to extend beyond expectation in a multi-lingual vocabulary of expression from one pattern to the next – here friendly and informal, there sophisticated and crisp, elegant and fluid. I was looking at the work of a master.

To be continued...

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