Nineteen thirty-six turned out to be the wrong time to pursue a career on "the other side of the mountain." Joseph Stalin was purging the USSR of artists, intellectuals, foreigners, and anyone else he perceived as a threat. Eva, who was not the least bit political, was arrested on charges of conspiring to assassinate Stalin and jailed for 16 months in one of the notorious NKVD prisons. Twelve of those months were spent in solitary confinement, where she was left to marinate in the unrelenting knowledge that every day could be her last.
As we sit here more than 60 years later, the only thing I can think to ask is how she survived with her sanity intact. Eva rubs her temples and says that her head hurts, but when I suggest we stop, she ignores the offer, takes a breath, and goes on. "I did whatever I could do in a tiny cell to keep my body in shape. I spent hours repeating leg exercises, I stood on my head—anything. As for my mind, well, I avoided any soft or loving thoughts." She wouldn't allow for even a hint of vulnerability. "Beyond that, I kept very busy. I created projects for myself. I actually came up with a bra design! I thought through every aspect—the width of the straps, the proper amount of padding, exactly where it should hook—then I constructed it. I handstitched the whole thing," she says proudly. "And I did it all in my mind," she adds, as her voice trails off. Then one day, just as suddenly and inexplicably as she'd been arrested, she was released. Eva is still a little stunned as she describes being led from her cell, thinking the time for her execution had finally come. "Instead they just put me on a train to Austria, with nothing but the clothes I was standing in."
Eva had missed 16 months of life and she was not going to miss another minute. She boarded the last train out of Austria before Germany invaded. She married Hans Zeisel and, in 1938, emigrated to America. A year later she spearheaded a ceramics curriculum in the department of industrial design at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, where she taught until 1952. Over the years, she's worked in Italy, Japan, England, and India, had two babies, received honorary doctorates, picked up every prestigious award imaginable, and attended a 2006 luncheon at the White House. Her work is in permanent collections everywhere from the Metropolitan Museum of Art to the British Museum. There have been retrospectives all over the world and fresh releases of old designs, always approved by Eva herself.
But it's her new designs that astonish me. Her pieces are scattered all over the apartment—a collection of exquisite Christmas ornaments, a series of ceramic tiles coming out later this year, a group of light fixtures also in development. Every piece is witty, chic, utterly original, much like the woman behind them. I ask Eva where she finds beauty. "I look at a pressed red maple leaf from the tree in my garden upstate, I study the flowers people bring me. My eyesight only allows me to see very close-up, so when I design, I visualize the image in my mind and then I draw it like this—" Eva becomes instantly animated, her hands dancing in the space between us until I can see a perfect Zeisel pitcher, literally plucked from thin air. "I make a rough sketch. My design assistant, Olivia Barry, refines it; she uses thick lines and makes cutouts and models for me to feel. I'll say, 'This curve needs to be deeper, I want this wall to be angled, let's get this part really slender,' until it feels exactly right. My designs are meant to attract the hand as well as the eye."
She seems so sure of herself. I wonder how many years it'll take me to get so clear about how I want something to look or feel or be. I ask her if there is anything she regrets—something she'd go back and do differently if she could. She thinks for a minute, watches as her daughter enters the room again, glances at a sketch she's working on, and finally replies, "I regret nothing. I'd do it all again and I'd do it all the exact same way." Jean is genuinely startled. "Mother! What about Stalin? What about the prison—you'd do that again?" Eva's back straightens, and for a split second, she is absolutely defiant. "I never put myself in a prison," she says. "They did that to me."
Tired now, she asks if there's anything else I need to know. What I need to know is how you live more than a century—is it about diet, or heredity, or having a passion that goes the distance? But, feeling unusually energized after spending the afternoon with a genius, I also need to get back to finding a proper home for Mary H. Krell. "Just one last thing, Eva: What surprises you? I mean, at 103, is there anything that can still fill you with a sense of wonder?" Eva doesn't have to think to answer this question. "My dear," she says, "everything surprises me."
More From Lisa Kogan
We Hear You!