The Smithsonian's Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum has selected Eva Zeisel, the celebrated ceramics designer, to receive this year's National Design Award for lifetime achievement. A second top honor, for corporate achievement, goes to the Patagonia sportswear company.
In its announcement yesterday, the museum called the 98-year-old Zeisel a "legend" in her field. For more than 75 years, she has experimented with sensuous rounded forms and sinuous lines to turn everyday objects into functional works of art. She has designed in wood, resin and metal but is best known for the swooping ceramic platters and bowls that graced American dinner tables in the 1950s and are highly collectible today.
Reached by phone at her New York apartment, Zeisel said she was "proud and happy."
The lifetime achievement award identifies individuals who have made a "profound and long-term contribution to design." Past winners include architects Frank Gehry and I.M. Pei and graphics designer Milton Glaser.
Patagonia, winner of the corporate award, specializes in performance wear for mountain and extreme sports. Founded in 1973 in Ventura, Calif., the company has helped to develop new fabrics, including Capilene and H2No Storm, while showing environmental consciousness through the use of recycled soda bottles for clothing.
The award recognizes firms for using design as a strategic tool and advancing "the relationship between design and quality of life." Past winners include Apple Computer, Tupperware, Whirlpool, Target and Aveda.
A new award for design education was announced yesterday. It goes to Michael and Katherine McCoy, who spent 24 years as directors of design at the Cranbrook Academy of Art in Michigan. A special commendation was issued by the jury to Sergio A. Palleroni, a research fellow at the Center for Sustainable Development at University of Texas at Austin. Palleroni leads design-build studios for architecture students in needy communities in this country and abroad. Groups of American students are currently at work in Africa and Southeast Asia.
The National Design Awards were launched in 2000 at the White House as an official project of the White House Millennium Council. In keeping with the Cooper-Hewitt's ever-expanding definition of design, the number of awards has grown to 10. Individual trophies for architecture, products, communications, fashion, interiors and landscaping will be conferred at an Oct. 20 gala in New York.
The Cooper-Hewitt notes that Zeisel has described her career as a "playful search for beauty," which happens to be the name of a retrospective at Washington's Hillwood Museum & Gardens. On a visit to Hillwood in April, Zeisel explained that she has been guided throughout her career by a belief that "beautiful objects should be available to everyone."
The Hungarian-born designer established her reputation at the high end first. In 1946, the Museum of Modern Art and a ceramics manufacturer commissioned her to design a radical set of all-white china to promote the new modernist aesthetic. She went on to translate the fine museum china into affordable dinnerware. One of her vintage collections was reissued in January by Crate & Barrel. Three new stemware designs for Nambe will be launched in the fall.
The Cooper-Hewitt announcement mentions Zeisel's design work with the Imperial Porcelain Factory in St. Petersburg, but does not take note of the designer's ill-fated sojourn in Soviet Russia during the 1930s. As a talented young designer from Berlin, Zeisel rose quickly through the administrative ranks of the state ceramics factories until she was arrested without warning and imprisoned for allegedly plotting to kill Joseph Stalin. After months in solitary confinement, she was released and expelled from the country. She arrived in New York in 1938.
Zeisel's award almost didn't happen. Her assistant, Allen Cordell, explained yesterday that the designer was initially not interested in devoting precious time and energy to submitting the required paperwork. In the end, she relented.