Beyond Buildings


Living with Zeisel

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Ziesel 1
Image credit: Aaron Betsky.

I grew up with modernism, not only in terms of my likes and my profession, but also all around me. I am reminded of that every time we pull out our prized set of Eva Zeisel plates, which we inherited from my parents and which we use, chips and all, only when we have company. The chocolate brown, iridescent glaze (no doubt slightly toxic, I am afraid), combined with the eccentric way in which the pieces curve up in the direction we always place away from the table edge, turns them into fragments of a cosmic or biomorphic order that alludes to a world beyond the dining table. The curving forms of the bowls and serving dishes, some of which we bought to supplement the plates, create waves of color coursing under the eddies of conversation. I am grateful to Zeisel, who passed away last week, for her designs, and to my sister, who has written about Zeisel, for letting me use these plates (they are destined some day for my niece).

Ziesel 2
Image credit: Aaron Betsky.

Our parents had good taste. During the 1940s, when they were in England, they drove an Aston Martin, even on graduate students’ stipends. In the 1950s, they commissioned one of Breuer’s students to design a house for them in Montana. In the Netherlands, where my sister and I grew up, they acquired Dutch design from the turn of the century through the 1930s. Best of all, when they were starting their teaching careers in Massachusetts, they shopped at Design Research in Cambridge.

Our house was full of great mid-century modern furniture and accessories, but the Zeisel always was special. My parents also only brought it out for guests. Taking them out of the asymmetrical stack of wood, metal, and glass blocks that served as our sideboard always marked a special occasion, and the ritual of placing them in the right orientation on our oval, Danish table made me think that I was preparing for grown-up experience in which I would become part of a community of intelligent, cultured individuals.

Ziesel 3
Image credit: Aaron Betsky.

Having those Zeisel plates, in other words, affirmed and affirms us as part of an elite group. That group just happens to value good design, the use of material with care and an eye to their properties, an evocation of basic principles, whether they be of geometry or of nature, and discernment. I am proud to be part of that group, though aware of its limitations and the danger that we isolate ourselves in our well-designed worlds. I like to think that our homes and the places our friends design are laboratories for design ideas that have and will reach beyond our narrow orbits.

Zeisel fought hard to produce the artifacts that were so central to that sensibility, and that could be mass produced so that they would have reach. She worked her way from Hungary, where she originally wanted to be an artist, before deciding she wanted to work for the masses, to Germany, to Russia, where she not only helped to furnish the Revolution, but also spent eighteen months in prison. She finally came to the United States, where she worked in a manner that allowed her work to show up not just at Design Research, but in department stores all over the country-–Crate & Barrel revived one of her lines not too long ago. She lived to be 105 before passing away in New York.

We continue to collect work not only by Zeisel, but by Arne Jacobson, Hennig Koppel, and Alvar Aalto, as well as more recent Dutch pieces, good design from Ikea and Target, and some wonderful cups designed by Frank Gehry. All them give us pleasure, and elevate the simple acts of eating and drinking to a chance for us to look at and think about the nature of form, function, material, and production.

Truth be told, most of our guests don’t notice the Zeisel, and I doubt they did when my parents brought them out. When one does remark on them, ask about them, pick them up and stroke their lines, we look at each other across the dinner table and smile. Zeisel has worked again.


Comments (1 Total)

  • Posted by: Anonymous | Time: 7:52 AM Friday, January 13, 2012

    My sympathies to Jean and John. What a remarkable woman! I, too, have some Eva Zeisel gems -- 4 lovely white dessert plates, each with its abstract drawing on the top and "Hallcraft, Shape by Eva Zeisel, Made in U.S.A. by HALL CHINA CO" on the back. .......I had an active life in the architectural magazines, from 1959-1967 as Assistant Technical Editor and an Associate Editor at P/A, then from 1967 as a Senior Editor at Architectural Forum, and from 1972 to its closing a year or so later as a Senior Editor at Architecture Plus. I've done quite a bit of other writing, since then. Living in Vermont since the early 1970s. Eager to hear from anyone who remembers me from those days in NYC, or from my teaching soon afterward -- a 3-credit course on writing and criticism, and shorter workshops -- at various architecture schools. Greetings from Ellen Perry Berkeley On e-mail:

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About the Blogger

Aaron Betsky

thumbnail image Aaron Betsky is the director of the Cincinnati Art Museum, and in 2008 he was director of the 11th Venice International Architecture Biennale. Trained as an architect at Yale, he has published more than a dozen books on art, architecture, and design and teaches and lectures about design around the world. Aaron worked for Frank O. Gehry and Associates and Hodgetts & Fung Design Associates as a designer, taught for many years at the Southern California Institute of Architecture, and between 1995 and 2001 was curator of architecture and design at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. From 2001 to 2006 he was director of the Netherlands Architecture Institute in Rotterdam, the Netherlands.