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Eva Zeisel dies at 105; ceramic artist and designer known for her tableware

Few who admired Eva Zeisel's often-abstract designs knew that she had been imprisoned as a young woman in the Soviet Union and was later forced to flee Nazi-occupied Austria.

January 01, 2012|By Claudia Luther

"You would have expected flowers or some kind of gilt decoration or some kind of scrolled handle," Karen Kettering, who curated a traveling Zeisel exhibit, told NPR in 2005. "Instead what you have are very simple forms and everything slightly rounded," an effect that was "a very modern way of being formal."

Zeisel went on to design for such major manufacturers as Hall China, Federal Glass and Noritake. She also did pieces for Sears and Roebuck.

During the 1960s, Zeisel's aesthetic went somewhat out of favor. She all but abandoned her work, turning to writing and protesting the Vietnam War.

In the 1980s, she returned to product design when an art museum in Montreal mounted an exhibition of her work and midcentury designers in general were enjoying a comeback. Even after passing the century mark, she remained active and was continually delighted by the ubiquity of her creations.

"When I met my designs in the market of a remote village in the West Indies, or in the airport restaurant in Zurich, I felt like the mother of many well-behaved children," she once wrote.

When asked in 2001 how she could have left behind the grimness of her imprisonment to design such beautiful objects, she told Metropolis magazine: "Well, you come out so pleased with life. Everything is unexpectedly colorful."

She maintained a country home and workshop in Rockland County, N.Y., and also had homes in New York City and Chicago, where her husband was a prominent law and sociology professor at the University of Chicago. He died at 86 in 1992.

Zeisel was the subject of the 2002 documentary "Throwing Curves" and the 2003 biography "Eva Zeisel" by Lucie Young.

In her early 90s, Zeisel conceded that the world did not need "all these dishes."

"They're cold, they're hard, and we have to wash them," she told Newsday in 1997, then added playfully: "But paper plates will never bring a family together," or "teach children to say, 'May I be excused?' Obviously, it's a cultural need, and it's the designer who makes them festive."

Zeisel's survivors include a daughter, Jean Richards; a son, John; and three grandchildren.

Luther is a former Times staff writer.

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