Design  8 December 2016

Eva Zeisel

The Museum of Modern Art Commission

In 1942, Eva was commissioned by the Museum Modern Art to design a pure white, elegant, porcelain dinnerware service that would look like an heirloom. The manufacturer was Castleton China in Newcastle, Pennsylvania. This set was shown at a solo exhibition at Museum of Modern Art in 1946, the first the museum had ever presented solely dedicated to a female artist. This exhibition was pivotal in establishing Zeisel as a major American designer.

The founder of Castleton, had been deeply influenced by the 1941 Museum of Modern Art exhibit Organic Design in Home Furnishing, and wanted to introduce the new modern aesthetic into the pieces made by his firm. The Museum chose to give the design commission to Zeisel, whose work they had seen previously. The contract called for the Museum of Modern Art to approve each piece for inclusion in the set. No design suggestions were made, but some pieces were not selected. This large, asymmetrical, unglazed salad bowl was not included in the original set, and is the only one in existence. When Eva and one of her Pratt students were setting up the Museum of Modern Art exhibition, Eva gave her the bowl as a wedding gift. In 2005, she returned it to Eva who displayed it in her studio.

Eva Zeisel 1906–2011

Born in Budapest, Hungary in 1906, Éva Amália Zeisel (née Striker) transformed American tables with her beautiful and often biomorphic ceramic creations. Zeisel began her study of art by enrolling in the Royal Academy of Fine Art in Budapest for painting. However, Zeisel was soon inspired by the pottery creations of an aunt, and dropped out of the Royal Academy to devote herself to ceramics. In 1925, Zeisel traveled to Paris to see the groundbreaking International Exhibition of Modern Decorative and Industrial Arts, where she viewed the work of emerging modernists like Le Corbusier, Pierre Chareau, and Robert Mallet-Stevens. Zeisel turned away from the rigid geometry of these designers, which she found too cold and unfeeling, and instead embraced the warmth of sweeping curves in her own work. Zeisel immigrated to the United States in 1939, where she taught at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn.  In 1940, she teamed up with the Museum of Modern Art in New York to create a line of dinnerware that was “the first translucent china dinnerware, modern in shape, to be produced in the United States.” Although the Museum line wasn’t finished until 1946, it was included in an exhibition of her work—the first-ever museum show for a solo female designer—at the MoMA that same year. Zeisel’s success caught the attention of Red Wing Pottery and she collaborated with them to create her famed Town and Country line of ceramics in 1947. Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, Zeisel took a hiatus from design to focus on writing. In 1984, the Montreal Museum of Decorative Arts honored Zeisel with a retrospective of her work entitled Eva Zeisel On Design. In 2005, she won the lifetime achievement award in design from the Cooper Hewitt Design Museum. Eva Zeisel passed away at the age of 105 in 2011. Her work is held in the permanent collections of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York and the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, among many others.  

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