It was the spring of 2001. The past year had been motivating, full of new adventures, new experiences. I was a young packaging designer working a job where I was learning something new every day and loving every new opportunity.
When I discovered that Eva Ziesel would be doing a small US tour to support her new Nambe product launch my heart skipped a beat. I have no idea how a legend like her ends up signing autographs in a suburban Chicago Marshall Field's but I wanted to be there to show my respect. My roommate, also an artist and web designer, joined me in the trek to the suburbs.
I should back up and explain how I came to love the work of one of the lesser known mid-century design legends. My parents come from the land of Red Wing Pottery. The small Minnesota-based family business made everything from craft pottery to servingware and stoneware crocks. I don't think many people outside of Minnesota and Wisconsin know this small pottery company, but in my memories they were always cherished possessions by both sides of my family tree. My maternal grandmother had several pieces of Red Wing in her cabinet, my paternal grandmother used Red Wing crocks in her farm's kitchen to make the pickles I would love to eat. This tradition of collecting Red Wing was passed down to my mother and her siblings. Nothing in my mother's pottery collection intrigued me more than Schmoo, a pair of salt and pepper shakers that were unlike anything I had ever seen before. They felt organic, smooth, comfortable even in my hands as a small child. The salt shaker wrapped around the smaller pepper with a soft elegance that as a child seemed so foreign to me. These were not simple salt and pepper shakers, they were art. They were special, hand-crafted and spoke to me.
I didn't know that they spoke to other people too, not until I was in my teens and learned more about art and design. I knew nothing about the the challenges and life threatening experiences she'd overcome to even get to America and design for this small Minnesota company. I just knew that she approached every plate, cup and form differently from the 90-degree, angular 80's world I grew up in. The softness, the curves, the beauty in simplicity has always informed the work that I've done and the art that I've been drawn to.
Back to 2001, my roommate and I arrived at the store towards the end of the event. We waited patiently for the suburban women–who seemed to just happen into the department store that Saturday afternoon–make pleasantries with the woman they didn't fully comprehend. Eva spoke gracefully and slowly with a tinge of her eastern European accent noticeable in her words. She was a gracious host, but clearly tired by the attention and travel. Keep in mind at this point Eva was already 94 years old! She and her daughter Jean were preparing to pack up their things when she noticed us—two twenty-something girls who were just as out of place in this upscale department store as they were. When her eyes caught mine, I like to think she recognized a kindred soul. They motioned us over and invited us to sit, talk and have a cup of tea.
Eva was so curious about us! Who were we? How did we know who she was? What did we do? What did we love about life? Were we from Chicago? Did we love this city? Her specific words are now mostly a blur to me, but her liveliness, her positivity and her charm remain deeply embedded. She spoke with her hands, motioning those same soft curves as she explained the history of Schmoo. The salt shaker, she said, was her—the pepper, her baby daughter Jean. When she was working on the Town & Country product line for Red Wing, Jean was just a small child (as she spoke she squeezed Jean’s arm). She wanted to capture the protective feeling of being a mother—how you want to shelter your child from any harm. Her hands cupped each other and pulled apart to create the now classic form within mid-air.
She was captivating. I remember fondly comparing the soft grasp of her hands as we parted to my recently departed great-grandmother. Eva’s eyes still had so much life and energy, despite being trapped in an aging body. Her vigor made me think that she might live forever...
Eva passed away yesterday, at 105, designing still in her final years. I could tell you what I know of her life from books and our conversation but others will do that much better than I will. What I hope I can impart is a small sense of how meeting such a kind and wonderful soul made me feel. Her work and her spirit will always make me strive to create beauty in everyday objects.
Learn more about Eva Zeisel:
Dear Jean, if you should ever read this I need to thank you again. Your were so generous to invite two young designers to join you and your mother for tea. I am so sorry for your loss, your mother was such a wonderful and special woman. Her memory will always live on.