Ever wonder who is the coolest artist on the planet? Well, look no further. It is a woman who has proven for over seven decades that inspiration is absolutely everywhere...or at least, it is wherever she is in any given moment. She has worked all over the world designing pottery, rugs, furniture, tableware, vases, candlesticks, glassware, ornaments, watches, and silkscreens...just to name a few. And today, at the age of 103 she continues to design. For me, both she and her work are, and always will be timeless. Her name is Eva Zeisel, and even though I have never actually met her, I have had many intimate conversations with her heart and soul through her enchanting work.
Born in Budapest in 1906, she had an intense interest in seeing the world at a time when women simply did not travel alone. This desire lead to a bizarre twist of fate while in Moscow, when, not yet 30, she was accused of planning an assassination attempt against Stalin (yes, you read that correctly) which lead to an 18-month prison sentence, 12 of which were in solitary confinement... a "defining moment" as Dr. Phil would say. Recognizing that dwelling on happy memories would only bring her pain, she forced herself to think of nothing sentimental, nothing from her past. And, because thinking of the future meant realizing the possibility of never leaving the prison alive, she chose to live in present moment only. She kept her body toned by exercising in her little cell, and spent her days imagining creative designs to keep mentally fit. Her hours were filled with sketching, designing, refining and meticulously hand-stitching designs--all in her mind's eye. Like Nelson Mandella, her body was imprisoned but never her mind and spirit. Decades later, she explains that she wouldn't change a thing about that harrowing experience because it taught her to see and savor every moment since.
I fell in love with Ms. Zeisel's designs long before I knew about her life's circumstances. Most of her tableware was created before I was born--she was even honored with an exhibit of her work at the MoMA! And some designs from that era can still be found today on ebay or antique stores. And while all-white dinnerware is commonly available from every design company today, Ms. Zeisel was the first to create such a service in this country. Thankfully some of those sets from the 1940s and 50s have been revived at Crate and Barrel
and Bloomingdales, making them available to new generations of fans--again, proving that her designs are timeless and always fresh.
So what inspires her? Well, first, let me tell you what does not. She cautions todays' artists about Post-Modernist thinking that demands we be an individual, be spontaneous, be original, be unique, always strive to invent something new...ideas she calls "negative impulses" as they prohibit our ability to develop a relationship with our designs because our focus moves away from (rather than toward) our search for beauty. She taught at Pratt for 15 years, and challenged her students with assignments that taught them to stay in touch with the original feeling and motivation behind the design. For example, they were instructed to incorporate "describing words" like soulful, rhythmic, dull, earthy, happy, sinuous, etc into their work. This clarity of communication can be seen in examples of her own work like the lidded casserole dishes depicting birds, apples and ducks. It is easy to see how she incorporated lines, patterns and relationships observed in nature into functional design, all the while honoring the obvious joy she felt in creating these whimsical creations.
In the delightful book above, "Eva Zeisel On Design" (cover photo above by Fred Conrad) she narrates her ideas on design in both images and words. She points out how we are inspired by nature's repetitions and patterns, and shows how a slice of red cabbage contains the same designs found in the lines of Art Nouveau. (oh my, she is right!) Also, we see that many of her vases and bottles are patterned after the human form, based on the harmony found in negative and positive shapes. She calls her Town and Country salt and pepper shakers "portraits" of a family, patterned after her own family and when you look at them, you can't help but realize that this sensibility of form is what sets her work apart. It is a treat to discover that when she designs a bowl, she is mindful of creating a design that feels complete on its own, as opposed to one that feels empty. That is a concept I have never before considered, but it all goes back to her ability to really see and feel what is in front of her. Like ET pointed out in the previous post--she goes beyond the basic "rules" of design like line, shape, form, and value and presents us with the "spirit" or essence of the object. The photo above illustrates her process of creating as she begins by sketching and cutting her designs out of paper (you can see a finished version of her stunning tables at DWR) She reveals "Everything I do is a direct creation of my hands, whether it is made in wood, plaster, or clay...My designs are meant to attract the hand as well as the eye" This has never been more true than now when her eyesight is poor and she relies on an assistant to help translate the designs in her head to solid form that she can feel and refine with her hands. What an incredibly inspiring woman she is. You may also be interested in seeing her delightful interview on TED, visiting her website here, or reading this book or a recent interview with writer Lisa Kogan.
(above--my studio wet-brush holder. Knowing nothing about pottery, this is my foray into kneading, glazing and firing... and sharing Ms. Zeisel's love of curvilinear designs. My inspiration (and "describing words") were movement, waves, rhythm... Can you tell?
"...things speak to us, they tell us where we are. They talk to us through their shapes, contours, color, weight, temperature, surface, sound, and most clearly their associations...They fit in or clash with our surroundings. They speak to us in many national dialects. They speak of faraway places and things of old, of modern life and cultures long dead. They inspire. they sooth and bathe a home with grace, and provide intangible pleasures and joy. This is the magic of the language of design"...Eva Zeisel