The sign on the front door of her prewar apartment on Manhattan's Upper West Side instructs visitors to wash their hands before greeting Eva. Cold and flu season has not officially ended and nobody is taking any chances. This is because Eva Zeisel, who in 1946 became the first female designer in history to be given a one-woman show at the Museum of Modern Art, in New York City, is now 103 years old.
The Zeisel family genes must be Herculean; Eva's daughter, Jean Richards, could pass for 50-something, though a quick check of the dates proves that impossible. She brings me into the living room, where her mother sits at a small table. "Mom," she says, "this is Lisa." I extend my hand to Eva and she sandwiches it between her own. She traces its shape, skims each vein, and touches it to her cheek. But I'm not fooled by the tenderness of the gesture, or the fragility of the grasp—Eva is as strong as they come. Her hair is a luminous silvery white, her cheekbones are downright aristocratic, and her smile develops like a Polaroid, getting brighter as it comes into focus. Still, she has reached that place in life where, if you're lucky, looking back provides the resilience to look ahead.
I'm hungry for clues about Eva's remarkable talent, so I begin at the beginning. "Eva," I ask, "what can you tell me about growing up in Budapest?" She closes her eyes and, just for a minute, finds her way back home. "We lived in the hills. There was a beautiful orchard, and a pond with a bridge over it, and a small grotto. Then came our flower garden. It was my job to keep cut flowers and fresh fruit around the house," she says, nodding toward a bowl of tangerines. "There was also a vineyard, where we grew grapes to make our own wine." Eva's Merchant Ivory memories are pretty heady stuff for a girl who was born and raised in Detroit. I picture endless summers and calico cats and white cotton dresses as the sound of rush hour traffic outside Eva's window all but disappears.
She tells me about apprenticing herself while still in her teens to Mr. Karapancik, the last of the master potters in Hungary's medieval guild system. "He taught me everything there was to know about ceramics, from mushing the clay with my feet to firing the pieces in the kiln. Once a week, the master's wife would haul a big wooden cart filled with our wares to market, where she'd sit and sell them. But the world was pulling at me," Eva says, and pauses for a sip of tea. "So I took a job doing design work in a factory, then I placed an ad in the trade papers explaining that I was a qualified journeyman seeking a position. I received several offers, and naturally," she says with a wily smile, "I picked the one that was farthest from where I lived."
Eva headed for Hamburg, Germany, and then Schramberg, where she became one of the first people to apply contemporary mass production techniques to the ceramic arts. But her wanderlust kept her moving; over the next few years, she found a flat in Paris and, later, a studio in Berlin, always searching for the next great adventure. Then, in 1932, she went to Russia. "I just had to see what was on the other side of the mountain." She got one job and then another, until after nearly four years of impressive promotions, at the age of 29, Eva Zeisel was appointed art director of the porcelain and glass industries for the entire republic.
Surviving solitary confinement with her sanity intact
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