Industrial designer known for her ceramic tableware, furniture, glass and lighting who arrived in the US in 1938
Eva Zeisel, who has died aged 105, was one of the most respected postwar product designers in North America. Her specialism was ceramic tableware but she also designed furniture, textiles, glass and lighting. Her remarkably successful career in the United States began soon after her arrival as an émigré in 1938. By the mid-1950s she had created an elegant, sculptural new look in ceramics that was inspired by Jean Arp, Salvador Dalí, Henry Moore and Finnish and Scandinavian design. Together with Charles and Ray Eames and Russel Wright, Zeisel offered an organic modernism that came to characterise informal middle-class living. She continued to design as a centenarian, still engaged in what she described as a “playful search for beauty”.
She was born Éva Striker in Budapest, then in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and grew up in Hungary under the rightwing regime of Admiral Miklós Horthy. She took part in the cultural life of the Weimar Republic in Hamburg and Berlin, became a leading designer in Soviet Russia from 1932 until 1936, survived Stalin’s purges and narrowly escaped the Holocaust.
Her family were wealthy, cultured, assimilated Jews. Her father, Alexander Striker, was a textile manufacturer; her mother, Laura Polanyi Striker, was a historian and educationist who ran a radical school. Eva’s uncles were the economic historian Karl Polanyi and the scientist and philosopher Michael Polanyi. The latter wrote on the importance of “tacit knowledge” (as opposed to “explicit knowledge”) and Zeisel’s greatness as a designer was in part based on her profound tacit knowledge of clay, rooted in Hungarian folk craft.
After studying painting, Zeisel took the unconventional step of apprenticing herself to an artisan potter, treading out the clay with her bare feet and accompanying him from house to house installing clay ovens, a training that gained her membership of the Guild of Chimney Sweeps, Oven Makers, Roof Tilers, Well Diggers and Potters. She built a kiln in her parents’ garden, sold pots in the market, designed for the Granít earthenware factory and represented Hungary at the Philadelphia sesquicentennial exhibition of 1926.
In the tradition of medieval guildsmen, Zeisel embarked on a modern version of a journeyman’s travels, taking her to a pottery in Hamburg and to the Schramberger Majolika factory in Germany’s Black Forest, where she had her first experience of designing for multiple production and learned prototyping skills. By 1930 she had a design studio in Berlin. Curiosity, recklessness and idealism took the strikingly beautiful Zeisel to the Soviet Union, where she married the Viennese physicist Alexander Weissberg in 1933. She became artistic director of the state-run china and glass industry, designing both for the mass and luxury market – her porcelain Intourist tea service was quietly classical and exquisitely handpainted with images of Lenin and Leningrad.
In 1936 she was arrested and imprisoned in the great purges, accused of being involved in plotting Stalin’s assassination. Freed after 16 months, mostly spent in solitary confinement, Zeisel found herself in danger again, as a Jew in Vienna. She arrived in New York with the lawyer and sociologist Hans Zeisel in 1938. They married that year, after her first marriage had been dissolved.
She began teaching at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, where she set up a pioneering ceramics design course. Using Emily Post’s etiquette manual as a guide to American social mores, she created soft asymmetric forms, exemplified by her brightly coloured Town and Country earthenware for the Red Wing Pottery in 1946, with its memorable intertwining anthropomorphic condiment set. She designed a more formal but softly curvaceous, all-white dinner service for Castleton China, put into production in 1946 and known as her Museum service; it was exhibited in her Modern China show at the Museum of Modern Art in New York that year.
The 1950s was a period of great productivity for Zeisel and her designs directly inspired the British manufacturer Roy Midwinter whose Stylecraft range was inspired by her nesting, asymmetrical designs. Zeisel was a modernist who resisted many modernist mantras, explaining that “the designer must understand that form does not follow function nor does form follow a production process. For every use and for every production process there are innumerable equally attractive solutions.”
By the mid-1960s she had turned away from design to write and to campaign against the Vietnam war. She was drawn back in the 1980s when a major retrospective, Eva Zeisel: Designer for Industry, was organised by the Musée des Arts Décoratifs de Montréal and the Smithsonian. Her old designs were reissued, including the Tomorrow’s Classic and Century dinner services originally made for Hall China and subsequently produced in the UK by Royal Stafford in 2005.
In 2000 she revisited the Lomonosov factory in St Petersburg, where she had worked as a designer in the 1930s, finding present-day Russia neither “pleasant nor happy”. In her long productive life she experienced folk artisanship in Hungary, small-scale industry in Germany, Soviet mass production, design for the consumer boom of 1950s America and, finally, the niche “design classic” market from the 1980s onwards.
Hans died in 1992. A daughter, Jean, and a son, John, survive her, along with three grandchildren.
• Eva Amalia Zeisel, designer, born 13 November 1906; died 30 December 2011