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Eva Zeisel, Still Bringing Plenty to the Table

By Linda Hales
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, April 23, 2005; Page C02

Eva Zeisel's ceramic designs are among the most sensual and vibrant of any manufactured in modern times.

Voluptuous pitchers and vases are plump as ripe gourds. Platters end in shapely extensions that suggest winged flight. Even the humble gravy pitcher is recast as a luscious orb that would serve as nicely when filled with flowers.

Eva Zeisel, 98, shown with her Century Classic dinnerware set, is being spotlighted at "Eva Zeisel: The Playful Search for Beauty," which opened this week at Hillwood Museum & Gardens. (Talisman K. Brolin)

Zeisel, who is still working at 98, has designed beautiful objects and tableware for nearly 80 years. Popular collectibles, recent decorative works and rarely seen prototypes make for delightful viewing at the retrospective "Eva Zeisel: The Playful Search for Beauty," which opened this week at Hillwood Museum & Gardens. So does a spectacular formal dinner service designed between 2000 and 2003 for a St. Petersburg porcelain factory founded in 1744 to serve the czars. There is more.

Geopolitics add a dimension to the story that makes Zeisel one of the more intriguing designers of her era. At Hillwood, the ceramics serve as bookends to a saga of trauma and triumph involving an optimistic young designer and the failed Soviet experiment.

Zeisel was 24 in 1930 when she left her native Hungary, first for Berlin, then Ukraine and Russia. She passed through Vienna and England before finding solace in New York in 1938. There was no question of going home to Hungary during the war or after Soviet troops crossed the border in 1956.

As Hungarian Ambassador Andras Simonyi said to the designer last week at the unveiling of the exhibition, "If you had not been chased away by issues, Hungary would have been a more fun place."

Zeisel made her way to the microphone with help from daughter Jean Richards and responded with the warmth she has sought to achieve in her ceramics.

"I am very pleased to have heard all these words that made me go up in my own esteem," she said. "I feel very much more important than I felt an hour ago."

In her writings, Zeisel has said that designs have the power to "speak of faraway places and things of old, of modern life and cultures long dead."

Eva Amalia Striker was born to a family of Budapest intellectuals in 1906. She abandoned fine art studies to become a journeyman potter after attending the 1925 Paris Exposition des Arts Decoratifs et Industriels Modernes. She was impressed by a pavilion in which the modernist architect Le Corbusier espoused functional over fine arts. After working as a freelance ceramics designer, she moved to Berlin, a center of artistic ferment.

In the exhibition, a geometric tea set designed for the Schramberger Majolika Fabrik reflects the prevailing tide of modernism. The Bauhaus school was ascendant from 1919 to 1933 (when it was closed by Nazi order), but Zeisel did not succumb to its vision of hard-edged geometries and cool restraint. Her contemporaries, mostly men, would spend the rest of the 20th century insisting that less could be more. In Zeisel's hands, more was more. She preferred to let emotions show in fulsome curves of clay.

In 1932, when the German economy soured and a client went out of business, she followed a friend and later husband, physicist Alexander Weissberg, to Ukraine. She has written that she expected a more optimistic, forward-looking society in the Soviet Union, based on contact with Russian emigres in Berlin. Nevertheless, she managed to prosper by helping to modernize the Soviet ceramics industry. She worked at the former Imperial Porcelain Factory, by then renamed the Lomonosov Porcelain Factory. Moving on to Moscow, she was promoted to art director of the state-run Porcelain and Glass Industries.

Then, without warning in May 1936, she was arrested and imprisoned for 16 months on charges of conspiring to kill Joseph Stalin. Others in the alleged plot were executed, but she was expelled from the country and put on a train to Vienna. With the arrival of German troops in Austria six months later, she and Hans Zeisel, the sociologist and longtime friend who would become her second husband, fled to England and finally to New York.

Karen Kettering, Hillwood's curator of Russian arts, has researched the Soviet archives and provided the essential background for this exhibition. She curated the exhibition on behalf of the Knoxville Museum of Art, where it was first shown in 2004, as a celebration of Cold War-era design. Objects were drawn mostly from the designer and private collections. At Hillwood, the Russian connection is emphasized with the addition of key pieces from the museum's permanent collection of Russian decorative arts.

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