Artistic Innovator Going Strong at 98

Eva Zeisel (search) was 18 when she took a break from school to see a show of industrial art in Paris. To say it made a lasting impression would be a spectacular understatement: 80 years later she's still designing imaginative glasses, plates and other commonly used items.

About the only time Zeisel stopped working during those eight decades was the 16 months she spent in a Soviet prison on trumped-up charges that she was part of a plot to assassinate dictator Josef Stalin (search).

Her Soviet police mug shots are included in a new show of her work, "The Playful Search for Beauty," (search) which is on display at Washington's Hillwood Museum and Gardens through December.

Raised in Budapest and Vienna, Zeisel dropped out of the Budapest Academy of Fine Arts to become the first woman apprentice at a guild that oversaw makers of items such as ovens and roof tiles. In her early 20s, she tried unsuccessfully to interest a German ceramic firm in something more delicate than sinks and bathtubs.

She had more luck with another company that made cheap items of glazed earthenware, designing hundreds of useful objects such as desk sets in simple circles and squares, often a bit off-center to make them more striking.

Though aiming for simplicity and usefulness, Zeisel wanted them beautiful, too.

In the early 1930s, Germany was deep in depression and many young Europeans saw the Soviet Union as promising a more adventurous future. Zeisel was one of them. Her first design there was a tea set painted with mostly urban scenes, designed for hotels and restaurants. One innovation: a cylindrical teapot with greater capacity and occupying less space than the traditional round ones.

Before she was 30, Zeisel was named artistic director for the entire Soviet ceramics industry. The job didn't last long. Early one May morning in 1936, the Soviet secret police arrested her.

"I didn't realize what was happening until they started taking my picture," she said in an interview. "Then I thought: This is what they do to criminals."

She served 16 months in a Soviet prison, much of it in solitary confinement. The other accused conspirators were shot, including the one who had denounced her under police pressure. Zeisel was released after an intense letter-writing campaign by influential family and friends.

More than half a century later, in the fading days of the Soviet Union, Zeisel got a letter from the secret police "rehabilitating" her. She was told that she was entitled to two months' back pay — but the agency that had hired her no longer existed.

After her release, Zeisel went to recover in Vienna, where she married Hanz Zeisel, a sociologist. It was just when Adolf Hitler's troops were moving into Austria. The Zeisels, fearing persecution because of Jewish origins, fled to London and then across the Atlantic, arriving in New York in 1938 with less than $70 between them.

Zeisel landed a job at New York's Pratt Institute, where she created and taught the first American course for students of industrialized art.

She designed so many items for so many companies that New York's Museum of Modern Art combined with a private firm and commissioned her to design the first U.S. modern porcelain dinnerware. It was displayed at the museum's first one-woman show.

As more and more women entered the work force, she designed a set called "Stratoware" that included a casserole dish for recipes made from leftovers and canned products, going directly from oven to table.

In her 50s she developed an interest in historical research, working on the story of a series of fires in New York in the 1700s. She argued that the fires were accidental and not set by a slave conspiracy, as was believed at the time.

In her 70s she visited her native Hungary for the first time in more than half a century, designing ceramic tiles for the traditional Zsolnay factory, as well as vases, pitchers, toys, furniture, lamps and fountains.

Approaching her 90s, she was back in the United States working in a silver-like alloy that does not tarnish, developed from seven metals at the Los Alamos laboratories.

A set of wine glasses done for a Connecticut firm is due to come out soon.

Zeisel said she has little interest in modern artists who see art as mostly self-expression. She wants to communicate, and she has long seen mass production of useful but beautiful objects as the best way to reach the most people.

"Whatever I design it's as a gift to others," she said, insisting that a simple bone china cup be taken from its glass case so her interviewer could hold it and feel its texture.

It was part of a dinner set she designed for the privatized Lomonosov factory in St. Petersburg, Russia. It was chosen for the Washington show as the most recent example of her art. She worked at the same factory under the Soviets before her incarceration.

The show is on view until Dec. 4. Admission is $12 for adults.