Designer Eva Zeisel, born on this date in 1906, passed away at the age of 105 last December. A major figure in 20th-century industrial design, she is perhaps best known for her contributions to mid-20th century American modernist ceramics. Her career, however, spanned more than 80 years, and we are fortunate to have some of her early works, including this tea set known variously as the Leningrad or Intourist tea service (Intourist was the Soviet Union’s official state travel bureau). Zeisel began her career in her native Hungary, and in the late 1920s went to Germany to design mass-produced tableware for the Schramberg ceramics works. After a visit to the Soviet Union in the early 1930s, she took a job at the Lomonosov Porcelain Factory, the former imperial porcelain factory in Leningrad. Zeisel explored the factory’s archive of 18th-century tableware and realized that “the clean lines of modern design could be successfully combined with sensuous, classic shapes.”
This tea set, designed in 1933, is composed of short cylindrical and circular forms. To meet the drive to “rationalize” Soviet ceramics, Zeisel designed the simple shapes for inexpensive production as well as for their visual and physical appeal. Designs for the Lomonosov Factory also had to meet state-mandated standards of social realism. The painted decoration depicting Leningrad’s new and old monuments was designed in 1935 by Varvara Petrovna Freze. The decoration is presented in color on the “fronts” of the pieces and is gilded on the “reverse.” For instance, the teapot features a polychrome scene of Sergei Evseyev’s statue of Lenin, countered by the gilded image of St. Isaac’s Cathedral. Each form is further accentuated with gilded decoration on the edges, handles, spouts, and lids. The set presents a fascinating combination of design for utility, design for appeal and design for the communication of Soviet-era propaganda.
In 1936, only a year after being appointed artistic director of the Russian china and glass industry, Zeisel was imprisoned after being falsely accused of plotting to kill Stalin. She was released after 16 months, the majority of which was spent in solitary confinement. After arriving in the United States in 1939, Zeisel taught ceramics as industrial design at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn and continued to bring a unique and playful variety of organic modernism to the ceramics, glass, metalwork, and furniture she designed well into the early 21st century.
Learn more about Eva Zeisel in her own words at a 2001 TED talk, and from a Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum conversation about Zeisel, hosted by Bill Moggridge, in early 2012.