- The Washington Times - Friday, April 15, 2005

Life threw Eva Zeisel a curve, and she threw it back many times over in her rounded designs.The Hungarian-born potter, now age 98, worked as the artistic director of the Soviet Union’s porcelain and glass industry in the 1930s until she was accused of conspiring against Soviet leader Josef Stalin and imprisoned for more than a year. (Arthur Koestler, a friend from childhood, based his book “Darkness at Noon” on her prison experiences.) After being released, the young designer traveled to Vienna and, just as the Nazis were invading Austria, fled to England and finally to New York City in 1938.

Enduring solitary confinement and then deracination didn’t crush her spirit, however. Mrs. Zeisel’s zest for life is evident in the zaftig ceramics that first earned her acclaim in the 1950s. Her sensuous, often voluptuous shapes express the softer side of modernism in recalling fruit, leaves, female midriffs, mother and child.

“Eva Zeisel: The Playful Search for Beauty,” the one-room retrospective opening at the Hillwood Museum Tuesday, testifies to the still-active designer’s love of curves and the longevity of her creativity.

“The curves [in my ceramics] have something to do with my own curves,” said the designer, who attended this week’s preview of the exhibit with daughter Jean Richards. “I’m not a very skinny person. My work is a self-portrait.”

Though frustratingly small, the Hillwood exhibit manages to squeeze in a representative cross section of Mrs. Zeisel’s ceramics, from a 1926 Hungarian sugar bowl to a table service made in 2004 at the same Russian factory where she worked during the Stalinist era.

Evident from this brief survey, which originated at the Knoxville Museum of Art, is the growing adventurousness of the designer’s approach to some of our most mundane household items — plates, pitchers, casseroles and gravy boats. Compared to the decorated, touristy china from her early Soviet days, her streamlined, unadorned dishes made by American manufacturers in the 1940s and 50s look, ironically, revolutionary.

Some visitors may recognize these mass-produced, midcentury designs from their own china cabinets. Mrs. Zeisel’s most popular line was a grouping of white earthenware called Tomorrow’s Classic that was released by Hall China of Liverpool, Ohio, in 1952. The dinnerware — a starter set went for $8.95 at the time — included wavy-rimmed bowls, softened square plates and a teardrop-shaped sauceboat that also could be used as a flower vase. (Crate & Barrel sells a British-made reproduction called Classic Century at $236.95 per set.)

The flowing shapes of this china and other designs by Mrs. Zeisel from the 1940s and ‘50s weren’t exactly innovative by Western standards, though the exhibit presents them as if they were. American designer Russel Wright, Finnish architect Alvar Aalto and others had experimented with fluid forms in ceramics and glass in the 1930s.

Wright’s American Modern pitchers and teapots, manufactured by the Steubenville Pottery Co. in Ohio from 1939 to 1959, had similarly exaggerated spouts. These designs, however, are not shown at the Hillwood exhibit, nor are Mrs. Zeisel’s forays into lighting and furniture design.

Like many recent shows devoted to midcentury modern-ism, this one isolates the designer’s ceramics instead of framing them within a larger context. Given the resurgent interest in the era, it’s high time for a major museum to mount a wide-ranging survey of the decorative arts from the period.

One of Mrs. Zeisel’s contributions to midcentury design was to introduce an elegance and delicacy to mass-produced ceramics, perhaps as a result of her European training. In designing her Museum dinnerware for Castleton China in the 1940s, for example, she studied Emily Post’s guide for entertaining and considered how her pieces would cast shadows when arranged on a dimly lit table.

The formality of the porcelain set countered the casualness of much modern earthenware, such as Wright’s and the bright Fiestaware designed by Frederick Rhead in 1936 for the Homer Laughlin China Co. in West Virginia.

Practicality also was a consideration. Mrs. Zeisel designed most of her vessels with rounded lips and curved handles that easily fit the hand for lifting and pouring.

In 1947, she created a dinner service for California-based Riverside China with rounded bases so the pieces could rock without tipping over. She applied a similar ergonomic touch to dispensers for baby oil and food, created after the birth of her two children in the 1940s. Even some of her early Russian china was designed to be stacked.

Several of her most appealing designs were never put into production. The most dazzling piece in the exhibit, nicknamed the “Belly Button,” is a colorful room divider made from rounded ceramic modules with a navellike indentation in the middle of each one.

The prototype for the screen was made by an Italian faience factory in 1958. A tiny photo next to the original shows an all-white version of the design installed recently in Los Angeles’ hip Standard Hotel, owned by Hungarian-American hotelier Andre Balazs.

With few outlets for her work in the 1960s and 1970s, Mrs. Zeisel stopped designing ceramics until 1983, when, at age 77, she was invited to produce a series of vases and pitchers for the Zsolnay porcelain factory in her native Hungary.

These vibrant pieces, some finished in iridescent glazes, incorporate the bellybutton motif and appear almost Asian in their abstract simplicity.

By the 1990s, new generations of admirers had rediscovered Mrs. Zeisel’s pottery, turning it into a hot collectible. Renewed interest in her work led several American companies to commission the designer for new pieces.

Some of these are the most compelling works in the show: the clustered Upright and stacked Pillow vases shaped by the nonagenarian in 1999 for the Brooklyn, N.Y.-based company KleinReid elevate her utilitarian undulations into the realm of sculpture. (Several of these newer designs are being sold in Hillwood’s museum shop.)

Though the exhibit emphasizes the playfulness of Mrs. Zeisel’s ceramics, it conveys a serious, and heartening, message about resolve and renewal. As demonstrated by this designer’s remarkably long and productive career, it’s never too late to throw life another curve.

WHAT: “Eva Zeisel: The Playful Search for Beauty”

WHERE: Hillwood Museum & Gardens, 4155 Linnean Ave. NW

WHEN: April 19 through Dec. 4; Tuesday through Saturday 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.

TICKETS: Adults $12, Seniors $10, Students $7, Children 6-18, $5. Reservations required.

PHONE: 202/686-8500

WEB SITE: www.hillwoodmuseum.org

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