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Designer Eva Zeisel, who survived Stalin to create beauty, dies at 105

Eva Zeisel, whose post-war tableware designs “helped to revolutionize the way Americans set their tables” but who also suffered imprisonment and torture in the days of Joseph Stalin, died at 105 on Dec. 30, 2011.

Zeisel was “one of the most influential industrial designers of the 20th century, who created lyrical yet practical tableware and ceramics,” the Los Angeles Times said.

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The New York Times said Zeisel was among the designers who “brought the clean, casual shapes of modernist design into middle-class American homes with furnishings that encouraged a postwar desire for fresh, less formal styles of living.”

"Eva Zeisel took industrial design and made it more human and sensual. She trusts that a good curve is enough," said David Reid of design studio KleinReid.

Active until recent years, Zeisel’s work was the subject of a major retrospective, Extraordinary Designer, Craftsman at 100, at Mingei International Museum of Folk Art and Crafts in San Diego in 2007. She won numerous awards over the decades, including Medal of the Middle Cross of the Order of Merit of the Republic of Hungary in 2004.

Chinaware she did for the Museum of Modern Art in New York was shown in a 1946 exhibition. The British Museum in London has her "Town and Country" dinnerware in its collection, and retailer Crate & Barrel has items based on designs of hers from the 1950s. Her original items are collectibles, and mass-produced versions are sold widely.

Before she made it to America in 1938, however, Zeisel had already lived a lifetime of success renown and then horror. She was born in Budapest, Hungary. Her father was a prosperous textile manufacturer. She studied painting at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Budapest but later turned to pottery under the influence of a peasant relative. She lived and worked in Weimar Germany and then moved to Ukraine. By age 29 she was named art director at the state-run Porcelain and Glass Industries.

But six years later, during the era of the notorious show trials and purges, she was arrested on charges that she had plotted to assassinate Stalin. Her imprisonment lasted 16 months, including 12 months in solitary confinement, torture and brainwashing,. By several accounts, Zeisel’s experiences were part of what Arthur Koestler used in writing his famous 1941 novel, "Darkness at Noon." She and Koestler were friends, some accounts saying boyfriend and girlfriend, as teens in Budapest.

During that era, a friend in Russia, sculptor Natalia Dan’ko, creating a series of bas-relief medallions of friends and colleagues caught in Stalin’s webs whom she wanted to commemorate, not thinking they would not survive. The medallions were hidden for decades after Dan’ko died in 1942. In the early 1990s, the Staliin-era charges against Zeisel were officially dropped and the medallion was unearthed and presented to her in New York in 2000.

In 2001, asked how she could have created beautiful objects after her imprisonment, she said, "Well, you come out so pleased with life. Everything is unexpectedly colorful."

 She was the subject of a 2002 documentary, "Throwing Curves," and a biography in 2003.

The Eulogizer highlights the life accomplishments of famous and not-so-famous Jews who have passed away recently. Write to the Eulogizer at eulogizer@jta.org.

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