5 Fast Facts: Eva Zeisel

Impress your friends with five fast facts about designer Eva Zeisel (1906–2011), whose work is on view in Pathmakers: Women in Art, Craft, and Design, Midcentury and Today through February 28, 2015.

Eva Zeisel (1906–2011)

Installation view of Eva Zeisel’s ceramics in Pathmakers

Installation view of Eva Zeisel’s ceramics in Pathmakers

1. Journeywoman

Hungarian-born Zeisel made a name for herself in Germany and Russia before settling in America in 1937. Early in her career, she apprenticed with a master potter and became the first female “journeyman” in the Hungarian Guild of Chimney Sweeps, Oven Makers, Roof Tilers, Well Diggers, and Potters.

2. Hazing Before Glazing

Zeisel’s Ted Talk recalled the “welcome” present she received on the first day of her job in a male-dominated Hamburg pottery shop. “Colleagues thoughtfully put on [my] wheel . . . a very nicely modeled natural man’s organs.” Zeisel’s blasé removal of it from her workstation garnered the attention and respect of her coworkers.

3. For the Birds

While most of Zeisel’s curvilinear designs recall the human body and intimate interpersonal interactions, she also created works that evoked Hungarian folk art birds.

Installation view of Eva Zeisel’s ceramics in Pathmakers

Installation view of Eva Zeisel’s ceramics in Pathmakers

4. Household Name

In 1942, the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) and Castleton China commissioned Zeisel to create modern china for mass production. Her resulting designs were featured in MoMA’s first one-woman exhibition. Zeisel’s works have since been sold by Red Wing Pottery, Hall China Company, Crate and Barrel, and Design Within Reach.

5. Shmoo Who?

 Zeisel’s “Town and Country” line for Red Wing Pottery included biomorphic salt and pepper shakers sometimes referred to as “Shmoos.” These pieces share the name and shape of cartoon creatures developed by Al Capp. Capp’s Shmoos are gentle, low-maintenance beings who reproduce quickly and are considered delicacies.

—Addie Gayoso is associate educator at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

Perpetual Pathmakers

Dynamic women designers and artists from the mid-20th century and today create innovative designs, maintain craft traditions, and incorporate new aesthetics into fine art in Pathmakers: Women in Art, Craft, and Design, Midcentury and Today, now on view at the National Museum of Women in the Arts. Each week, compare and draw parallels between works on view in Pathmakers and NMWA collection favorites.

On view in Pathmakers

Eva Zeisel (manufactured by Manifattura Mancioli), Belly Button Room Divider Prototype, 1957

Eva Zeisel (manufactured by Manifattura Mancioli), Belly Button Room Divider Prototype, 1957; Ceramic with metal rods, 60 x 36 in.; Photo by Brent Brolin; Courtesy of Eva Zeisel Archive

Eva Zeisel (manufactured by Manifattura Mancioli), Belly Button Room Divider Prototype, 1957; Ceramic with metal rods, 60 x 36 in.; Photo by Brent Brolin; Courtesy of Eva Zeisel Archive

Eva Zeisel is one of the best-known designers of the post–World War II era. Imbuing industrial products with a sensual and organic appearance, Zeisel won wide acclaim for her abstracted ceramic designs. Few people knew that Zeisel had been falsely accused of conspiring to assassinate Stalin, was imprisoned in Moscow in 1936, and later fled Nazi-occupied Austria. After her imprisonment—most of which she spent in solitary confinement—Zeisel said, “I hadn’t seen any colors in over a year and a half.” Her works after this period, including her work in Pathmakers, are often characterized by graceful, vibrantly colored designs with a sense of humor.

Who made it?

Hungarian-born designer Eva Zeisel (1906–2011) is the only woman whose works appear in both the midcentury and contemporary sections of Pathmakers. With an unprecedented 87-year-long career, Zeisel designed ceramics in Hungary, Germany, and the Soviet Union before moving to the U.S. in 1938. She was the first artist to have a one-woman show at the Museum of Modern Art in 1946. She worked well past the age of 100.

How was it made?

Zeisel became known for her furniture, rugs, tiles, and ornamental objects but revealed “ceramics is my favorite, because I can feel it with my hands.” Designed for Manifattura Mancioli in 1958, Belly Button Room Divider consists of double-ended porcelain vessels with slight “belly button” depressions. Rebelling against the straight-line aesthetic of Modernism, Zeisel threaded her ceramic forms into long rows, creating sensual S-curves. Zeisel explained, “the inspiration for my work has been the human body—belly buttons, which I used quite often—nature, and the Hungarian folk art of my youth.” With candy-colored glazes and a sense of playfulness, her work in Pathmakers exemplifies Zeisel’s design goal “to be very friendly.”

Collection connection

2007

Judy Chicago, Test Plate for Virginia Woolf from The Dinner Party, 1978; Glazed porcelain, 14 in. diameter; Gift of Elizabeth A. Sackler in honor of Wilhelmina Cole Holladay and the 20th anniversary of the National Museum of Women in the Arts

In NMWA’s collection, Judy Chicago’s Test Plate for Virginia Woolf (1978) is also a glazed, porcelain prototype. Chicago created the test plate in preparation for her large installation The Dinner Party. On view in a permanent installation at the Brooklyn Museum, The Dinner Party is one of the best-known works of the 1970s feminist movement, comprising three tables with place settings for 39 prominent women in history.

The test plate has the same dimensions as the final place setting. Each plate is unique to the woman it represents, but they share similar butterfly and vulvar forms. The floral imagery of Woolf’s plate—particularly its seed-like core and petals—may represent the fruitfulness of Woolf’s writing career. The curled petals also evoke an open book’s pages.

Visit the museum and explore Pathmakers, on view through February 28, 2016.

—Emily Haight is the digital editorial assistant at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

Now Open: Women Shape Design in “Pathmakers”

NMWA’s latest exhibition, Pathmakers: Women in Art, Craft, and Design, Midcentury and Today, is now open! Museum staff have been busy transforming the 2nd-floor galleries to display more than 80 objects including furniture, ceramics, textiles and jewelry. The exhibition explores the lasting impact of women artists and designers on midcentury Modernism through making groundbreaking commercial and industrial designs, maintaining craft traditions, and incorporating new aesthetics into fine art.

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Guest curator Jennifer Scanlan talks to members during Member Preview Day

In the 1950s and ’60s, an era when painting, sculpture, and architecture were dominated by men, women had considerable impact in alternative materials such as textiles, ceramics, and metals. Pioneers in these fields—including Ruth Asawa, Edith Heath, Sheila Hicks, Karen Karnes, Dorothy Liebes, Alice Kagawa Parrott, Lenore Tawney, and Eva Zeisel—had tremendous influence as designers, artists, and teachers.

Visitors explore prints by Anni Albers and a textile work by Marianne Strengell

Visitors explore prints by Anni Albers and a textile work by Marianne Strengell

Their artistic practices varied widely—some exhibited in New York City galleries, others took part in the regional handicraft scene in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and still others collaborated with corporations such as General Motors. Pathmakers also illustrates parallels between women creating work in the United States and Scandinavia, where craft often served as a pathway to Modernist innovation.

Guest curators Jennifer Scanlan and Ezra Shales also consider contemporary female artists and designers whose work builds upon that of their midcentury counterparts. Polly Apfelbaum and Michelle Grabner are represented by installations centered on woven and knitted patterns, while Anne Wilson’s work focuses on the processes of textile manufacture. Magdalene Odundo and Christine Nofchissey McHorse adapt traditional techniques and absorb influences from global sources. Furniture and fixture designers Vivian Beer, Front Design, and Hella Jongerius have also expanded the repertoire of making, while Gabriel A. Maher looks at the ways gender is constructed by the clothes we wear.

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A visitor studies Front’s Axor WaterDream/Axor Shower System

Pathmakers stresses the connections between midcentury and contemporary design and aesthetics,” said NMWA Associate Curator Virginia Treanor. “The installation will encourage the comparison of the modern and contemporary periods in a way that enables close inspection.”

Pathmakers: Women in Art, Craft, and Design, Midcentury and Today is on view through February 28, 2016. Visit this Sunday for a Free Community Day with a pop-up makerspace and enjoy noon gallery talks every Wednesday!