Zeisel, whose deceptively simple designs first became popular in the 1940s and are still sold at major design outlets, died Friday in New York City, it was announced on her website.
"Eva Zeisel took industrial design and made it more human and sensual. She trusts that a good curve is enough," David Reid of design studio KleinReid, which features her work, told The Times in 2005.
Few who admired her often-abstract designs knew that, during her long and adventurous life, Zeisel had been imprisoned as a young woman in the Soviet Union and was later forced to flee Nazi-occupied Austria.
In 1938, she immigrated to the United States with her husband, Hans Zeisel, and within a few years was designing a fine set of chinaware for the Museum of Modern Art in New York and Castleton China. The pieces, and Zeisel, were the focus of a MOMA exhibit in 1946.
The British Museum in London has in its collection her colorful mix-and-match "Town and Country" dinnerware first made by Red Wing Pottery in Minnesota in the 1940s. The salt and pepper shakers from that set — with their plump, anthropomorphic bodies curving toward each other — are iconic. Her vintage designs have long been collectibles.
By her own estimation, Zeisel had designed 100,000 pieces of tableware, in styles as diverse as Bauhaus, Russian Art Nouveau and her best-known approach, organic modern.
An exhibit in 2007 at the Craft and Folk Art Museum in Los Angeles, "Eva Zeisel: Extraordinary Designer at 100," included a recent collaboration with retailer Crate & Barrel based on her curvaceous designs from the 1950s.
Many who fancied her vast array of plates, cups, vases and other objects enough to put them on the dinner table did not know her name. The designer appeared untroubled by her relative anonymity, focusing instead on "the user" who was "my good friend," Zeisel said in 2004 in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
"I'm always thinking about my friend, someone to whom I'm giving my loveliness, my friendship and my shapes," she said.
Those elegant pieces often appeared to have human qualities, particularly in the way they tended to curve and nestle. "All my work is mother-and-child," Zeisel once said. Often critical of Modernism despite being one of its towering figures, the designer said she simply tried to recapture the "magic language of things."
In 2005, then-98-year-old Zeisel chuckled as she told a National Public Radio interviewer that she gravitated to curves "probably because I consist myself of curves instead of straight lines, meaning I'm a little bit fat."
Eva Amalia Striker was born Nov. 13, 1906, in Budapest, Hungary, into a prosperous Jewish family. Her father was a textile manufacturer.
She studied painting at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Budapest but soon turned to something she thought more practical: pottery. She apprenticed in her home city and later worked in Hamburg and Berlin.
After becoming interested in Russian art and culture, she moved to Ukraine. She quickly rose through the ranks of pottery design and production in the Soviet Union, and by age 29 was art director at the state-run Porcelain and Glass Industries.
Her life took a terrifying turn in 1936, when she was arrested on trumped-up charges that she had plotted to assassinate Soviet dictator Josef Stalin. She was imprisoned for 16 months, spending most of it in solitary confinement. Her confinement included torture and brainwashing, and became the basis for her friend Arthur Koestler's stark 1941 novel about totalitarianism, "Darkness at Noon."
"You never knew when the door would open and you would be shot," Zeisel said many years later. "So you learned to rule out the future."
When she was released, Zeisel later said, she thought the guards were taking her to be executed. She arrived in Vienna just six months before Hitler annexed Austria and then fled to London, where she married Hans Zeisel, a lawyer she had known in Vienna. The couple arrived in the U.S. with $64.
In New York, Zeisel pored over design periodicals at the library and contacted a magazine editor, who connected her with a china factory that hired Zeisel to create a set of dishes. She did so overnight and earned $100.