A dinner with Eva Ziesel

just eva

Every once in a while I am asked what is so great about living in New York, and sometimes I ask it myself. There is no simple answer, but I usually tell some version of this story, about the evening I had dinner with the designer Eva Ziesel.

It is one that requires some pre-amble; when Mary and I first arrived in this city in 1993 we rented a small tenement studio apartment in SoHo and struggled a little each month to meet the rent. Friday nights would be a shared Pizza in Arturo’s, most of our furniture was salvaged from the street as galleries were already moving to Chelsea and every Sunday would be a trip to the Flea Market on 26 street or on Grand and Broadway. Before long I realized the only affordable acquisitions were ceramic’s from the 1950’s. I read up about the post war pieces like Fiestaware and Russell Wright and their Americanness was still a little exotic to me. Soon I uncovered more rare items which I found from the stamped signature on the underside, were made by Eva Ziesel. It was still possible to buy the organically shaped Red Wing pottery as well as finer pieces made for Hall Craft for a few dollars, we had the seeds of a collection. A chance conversation between Mary and a mutual friend lead to the question; would you and Neil like to meet her? (She is 103 years old).

I hailed a taxi, or should I say it hailed me, and I smiled to myself at the predatory nature of New York taxi drivers. Perhaps it was because of the sequence of those words which re-called the song “Norwegian Wood” or the fact that the route would take me past that faux-chateaux on the West Side, the Dakota, I had summoned the ghost of John Lennon which happens sometimes. I tried to reconstruct the song and its introspective words, while my driver was treating the journey with the strategy of a chess master to avoid traffic; all while the modernist, discordant symphony of irate horns disrupted the early evening, the furious dry rattle of the windshield wipers and noisy complaints from pedestrians weaving through the stationary streets. The driver had occasional crisis’s of doubt and would turn to ask whether to go up Park or Madison? Or take 63rd or 65th? at the third question, I had had enough, and with a flash of anger, and maybe trying out a newly developed New York persona, I said “I thought you were the fucking taxi driver?” and was more than a little horrified at who I was becoming. He adopted a hurt silence for the remainder of the trip, took the scar through Central Park that connected the East to the West side, and I paid the price of a guilty conscience and a healthy tip.

I feel I know her life story well, but just to revisit it I spent a few unfruitful hours on the internet, you are left with sympathy for the obituary writer who has to condense her life story into a few paragraphs. There are a large number to be found, but in truth, they are very similar as if they had the same press release, and share the characteristic of leaving more questions than answers. Not wanting to add to this, and respecting that some things may never been known, I jotted down my list and tried to intuitively get answers and to let the women herself emerge from the missing pieces of the jig saw.

She had the great fortune of being born into a wealthy, intellectual Jewish family that engaged in the liberal arts and the great misfortune that this happened in 1906 in Budapest. A review of her early accomplishments indicates extraordinary talent and ambition but as importantly a strength of mind and indifference for what her expected role should be. At a very young age she had learnt her craft well, and headed commercial ceramics factories in Germany and the Soviet Union and rose through those ranks rapidly and was also a glittering figure in Berlin during the heyday of the Weimer Republic.

One event changed the course of her life, she was framed with two men for the improbable plot of attempted assassination of Joseph Stalin. One of her friends adds (the almost “made for Hollywood” detail) that a revolver was found in her sewing machine. She was released eighteen months later at the request of her mother…..if only the justice system were that easy. She was the victim of the injustice system, different rules apply, her alleged co-conspirators were both shot, she endured a year in solitary confinement. My guess is that this terrifying period, where she had no human contact might be what influenced the remainder of her long life both in the humanistic quality of her design and her work for the peace movement.

She was released and moved to Vienna only to wisely depart the day the Nazi’s arrived, to England, where she dissolved one marriage and entered another one. It was probably a relief to get on a ship to the New World with her new husband, even if they possessed less than a hundred dollars between them. The day after her arrival, she spent time in the New York Public library searching phone books for commercial potteries. However she had a lucky break, the Museum of Modern Art commissioned her to make a dinner set, and the design she presented was elegant and restrained, perfectly representing the post war mood; a hunger for simplicity, for purity, to think forward rather than backwards; it made her famous in those small circles she needed to be known in and commissions predictably followed.

When we were all together we were buzzed into the apartment which was long and narrow, dimly and romantically lit, filled with highly polished Biedermier furniture and each possible surface was crammed with her ceramics. Siting absolutely still and erect, grey hair in place and perfectly dressed was Eva herself. Charming manners and still with an easy elegance we were introduced, but it was soon apparent that her hearing was almost gone, it was necessary to shout in her ear and receive simple, often short answers and it was obvious this was not going to a nuanced conversation. The food was delicious and forthright with Hungarian influences, we talked haltingly about the Central Park Zoo and the Snow Leopard.

But every story requires a conflict and in this case it came with a pitcher that she had designed. My goal was to have her to sign it but I had already heard this might be a treacherous undertaking as there was a reputation for expecting to receive a gift from her guests. She lovingly caressed it, signed it and then as I had dreaded, asked for it. Aware of this likelihood and with some awkwardness was able to retrieve it with smiles and apologies but the mood of goodwill pivoted a little with this exchange, its tone and temperature changed and she looked a little unhappily and uncomprehendingly at me,  I felt miserable. Her daughter arrived and maybe also detected a chill in the air, but she was a kind, caring person who effortlessly helped things turn around, I’m certain this was not the first time, and we left happily with the offer of another engagement which sadly never transpired.

I love design, but more than that I love being around designers. I respect the passion to improve everyday things, to constantly seek change and advance, to improve the world through minor details. Holding an Eva Ziesel coffee cup is like touching the fingers of a loved one, it is a sensuous conversation, elevating the most prosaic act of drinking coffee to remind you of love, so that even alone, you feel you are not.

Red Wing potteries apparently gave her the brief of making a line which was “Greenwich Villagey”, and in return she received a flat fee of 300 US dollars for the design of the whole service. It was intended as a dinner service that would be used by the same people who were buying Bob Dylan records and wearing jeans with patches. The result was a set of dishes, cups, and cruet servers, candle holders and pitchers, plates and shakers which were organic and visually radical even today. Even though mass produced, they had the feel of the home made, of pottery evening classes, the lid of a server placed casually like a simple dab of clay to help your thumb which could have been mistaken as simple afterthought. The end result was a wonderfully volumetric and generous set of objects; some with the cheekiness of a detail that could make you recall subliminally a belly button or a nipple. The glazes were equally as casual and applied deliberately without too much precision, greens, soft blues and deep bronze. An elderly visitor once asked if the cup I served him with was made for the disabled and I replied that the very opposite was true.

In so many ways the Red Wing pottery is vastly different to the Museum pieces which were formal and controlled and therefore perfectly illustrate the range and creativity of her output. One of the key lessons about the history of art and design is that great objects endure for the simple reason that they are so beautiful that they cannot be destroyed or thrown away. You may think me ungenerous and a terrible guest but I couldn’t let go of that pitcher, it had become part of my history, and that to some extent is true of all the objects that I own of Eva’s. I still go to the flea markets with an eye for her work, and amazingly just a few weeks ago I found a cup and saucer from the Museum collection, perfect after seventy two years for six dollars, it contains in its own modest way the story of the twentieth century. And to return to the beginning, why does this story illustrate the reason New York is so great? It was because of the generosity of people sharing friendships, the simple open-doored availability to those of us with common passions; the city may be a zoo, I tell people, but the creatures are highly sociable and the species are interesting and remarkable like nowhere else.

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