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Eva Zeisel, The Late Modern Master, On The Hazard Of Too Much Innovation

Editors’ note: The following is an excerpt from the monograph Eva Zeisel On Design: The Magic Language Of Things (Overlook Press, 2004). Zeisel, a grande dame of mid-century modern design, died late last month at 105. Best known for her sensuous ceramics and glassware, she modernized the look of the American dinner table. Her career spanned more than 75 years at a time when few women populated the field, with a brief interruption in 1936, after she was falsely accused of conspiring to assassinate Stalin. Zeisel was a tough lady, both in her professional and private life. Here, she opines on the trouble with novelty for novelty’s sake.

Our deep-seated belief that what comes later is better than what came before has led us to overvalue novelty. The wealth of new technical inventions created the idea of endless progress: an advance toward a richer, better future. This attitude has led the Industrial Designers Society of America to call its magazine Innovation.

As long ago as 1815 Rachel Varnhagen, a woman from Frankfurt, wrote to her brother:

The whole earth has now been traveled and is known: compass, telescope, human rights, who know what else has been discovered… whatever happens anywhere is known anywhere else in a fortnight… I see all of existence as a progression, as an intense gain in perception, I truly think that earthly life is not a strict repetition, but a forward-stepping change. I am expecting the Great and the New, miracles of Invention, of discovery, of revelation. Oh Evolution! I am sure it is coming…

In 1859, one year after Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species, Herbert Spencer captured the optimism of the age and its trust in virtually automatic progress in his First Principles of Evolution. He predicted the endless benefits which technology was to bring to every field, easing the burdens of life, freeing time for leisure travel and art (which he called "play").

[Some of Ziesel’s supremely elegant ceramics]
The word "forward" began to be widely used. The earliest Socialist newspaper, for example, was called "Vorwärts" in Germany and "Avanti" in Italy. The idea of continuous progress was accepted in general parlance: the magazine of the Smithsonian Institute mentions the "progress of science" in the context of the Eiffel Tower. Otto Wagner, a forerunner of the modern design movement, named both Darwin and Spencer as his guiding spirits. Further on in the early twentieth century, Adolf Loos declared that "no one can stop the evolution of humanity," and that evolution brought about the elimination of ornament. Our minds are so influenced by the evolutionary calendar that we do not allow ourselves to accept the validity of our present aesthetic yearnings, to admit to our preference for ornament and the compound curve, for instance. If one expresses an interest in ornament, the response is usually that one is going "back to ornament." This, of course, frustrates our uninhibited creative process and deprives the magic language of its color.

Our belief in evolution leads us to the assumption that what comes later will be better than what came before. We use the term "avant-garde design," meaning design marching forward, with modern design in the lead. We speak of progressive architecture, progressive education, of the Progressive political party, the avant-garde music movement, implying that everything is moving forward, that the new is better than what came before. Today, designing mostly means to make something new, an attitude that has a negative impact on the work of the designer.

Inherent in creativity is a happy, positive attitude. It is a discovery, an exploration. However, in creating something that does not exist already, the designer focuses on how not to design something. This negative approach frustrates the urge to speak freely through lines, through the softness or hardness of the material, through colors—the physical urge to make something to touch. Any negative conditioning in the path of creativity is a hindrance.

[Prototypes of a proposed Coke bottle, by Zeisel]

Our inherent belief in evolution has led to our appreciation of novelty. While "variety" is an aesthetic term and attracts attention, "novelty" is a commercial term and attracts buyers. The main focus of much of today’s design effort is innovation; the communicative aspect of design has been lost.

Due to our fascination with the forms of technical inventions on the one hand, and the limiting vocabulary of the modern movement on the other, our designs have moved from the realm of feeling into that of reasoning. … However, beauty is not appreciated through reason—it is enjoyed through feelings. There is no objective beauty; it goes directly to the heart—a glowing rainbow over a field of ripe wheat needs no explanation.

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