Eva Eislerová – Czech designer who reached top of jewellery world in NYC

Eva Eislerová, photo: Czech Television

The Czech artist and designer Eva Eislerová originally wanted to be an architect. Instead, she became one of the most highly regarded makers of art jewellery in the world, after emigrating to New York in the 1980s with her half-Czech, half-English husband, John Eisler. Today Eva Eisler, as she is known to her collectors, spends most of her time back home in Prague, where she teaches at the metals department at the Academy of Arts, Architecture and Design.

Eva Eislerová,  photo: Czech Television
When we spoke recently at her elegant flat in the city’s Malá Strana, I first asked the artist to describe her family background.

“My father was a scientist. He was one of the inventors of robotics. In the mid 1950s, I think, he put together machine tools and computers. At that time, computers were something different.

“But eventually he left the country, in 1970 I think. Because he had been teaching at Manchester University for two years and lectured all over and then he had to come back here to extend the contract. The Czechs didn’t want him to continue his work and wrote something very nasty in the newspapers, and he eventually saved his neck by leaving.”

Did he leave and leave his family behind?

“He did, because he knew that it was impossible to stay longer and try to arrange for the others to go.

“My mother studied at the academy. She had a great career ahead of her, but unfortunately got married and had three children and needed to somehow compromise. But she did her work while bringing up the children, and eventually when we all left home, she started painting. She was a great designer also.

“So I had parents who…on one hand, it was very technical, and on the other it was very artistic.”

Ještěd Tower | Photo: Štěpánka Budková,  Radio Prague International
Do you mind me asking, what impact did it have on your family when your dad left on his own?

“Well, you can imagine. We were all kicked out of school, not allowed to continue. I was 21. It was very hard, and very painful, but I had started working at an architectural office and eventually did some graphic design. Then I met my husband, who was an architect working at SIAL with [Karel] Hubáček.

“I joined them and then I had children. When they were three and five we left for New York, and my life became completely different.”

Am I right in thinking SIAL was the architecture office which designed the Ještěd Tower and [Prague’s] Tesco building [originally known as Máj]?

“Yes, Hubáček designed the Ještěd Tower, and my husband when he was 24 was one of a team of architects with Martin Rajniš and [Miroslav] Masák who did Máj – Tesco.”

If we can rewind a little bit, when did you begin being creative, and making your own jewellery?

“I started making jewellery when I was, I don’t know, 15, and painting and sculpting. But I didn’t make any big deal about it. My father didn’t want me to go to an art school, so he suggested I study building technology and eventually architecture.

“And architecture was and still is my biggest interest, because it’s three-dimensional, it’s about the living environment, its effects all of our senses. Jewellery played a very important role in my life when I moved to New York and I had to take care of my children and couldn’t go and try to find a job in architecture.

Eva Eislerová - 'XXXL',  photo: Academy of Arts,  Architecture and Design in Prague
“I began working at home and eventually, and very surprisingly, I was quite successful and got into the best galleries. But at the moment when I could make things larger, I went…basically I still make jewellery but I’ve been leaving it behind in recent years. To the great disappointment of my collectors, I’m moving away from that.”

What was the direct impetus to you and your husband moving to New York?

“My husband was one of the members of a team who was invited to take part in a competition in West Berlin, the Tegel Hafen. This was 1978, or something like that. Only the most famous architects were invited, and surprisingly the jury wanted to give these young Czech architects first prize.

“Eventually that was not possible, politically, so they received the second prize. On the jury was Richard Maier, a famous American architect who had a word with John and said, listen, if you ever happen to be in New York, I would love you to come and work with me.

“They started corresponding and at one point we decided that this would be a great idea. But then it took three years to get permission to go.”

How was it for you arriving in New York in I think it was 1983?

Eva Eislerová - 'Spring Necklace',  photo: Academy of Arts,  Architecture and Design in Prague
“Yes, exactly. I think I was born for New York. It seemed to me so normal that I’m there. Everything that I imagined I would do there and how I would live, it happened.”

Did the fact that your husband already had a pretty good job mean you had a kind of softer landing than many Czechs who went to New York?

“No. Richard Maier is very famous, but also he doesn’t throw money around. So even though John had 15 years of experience, he started like a young architect after school. He worked for 20 hours a day, so he never had a chance to go out and enjoy New York and meet people.

“But I was full of energy and very curious, so I had to find my own way, and find the right people. What helped me somehow was my natural instinct and talent to go to places and talk to the people that I have to talk to.”

Generally speaking, where do you draw inspiration for your jewellery work?

“I get inspired by spaces by architecture, by details, by constructions, anything…”

Is making jewellery easier than being an architect? Because with architecture there’s all the physics of it and making sure that buildings are safe, for instance.

Eva Eislerová - 'Bracelet M',  photo: Academy of Arts,  Architecture and Design in Prague
“That’s a funny question, because if you want to be at the top in the world with whatever you do, every field has its own…way of doing things.

“It’s like when you ask an architect, can you design jewellery for me? He thinks that he can scribble something on paper, but it’s horrible.

“He would have to sit down and think about it for a month, to transform his mind into different…media, a different skill, and then something that could hold the idea on a smaller scale could come out of that.”

You hadn’t been that many years in New York when the revolution happened here. Did you at all consider coming back at that time, in ’89?

“No. I’m sorry to say, no.”

When did you begin coming back and how have you found being back here?

“I went to New York with my husband, and then in 2003, after 20 years as a design partner with Richard Maier, John decided to start on his own – for one third of his life, he wanted to try to make it on his own.

Photo: Academy of Arts,  Architecture and Design in Prague
“He accepted some commissions and some competitions to do in the Czech Republic, but if you are in New York and start your own company you need about a year to establish yourself, to gain clients, and he spent that year – or not only a year, a few years – doing projects for the Czech Republic.

“We had this 250 square-meter apartment in the middle of Manhattan, which was not cheap, but he was spending most of the time here. So I decided that after a quarter of a century it’s time to move back to Europe.

“But I didn’t feel I was going back to the place which I left. It was a completely different place. It was already part of Europe; it was not surrounded by high borders. And I felt that we could bring something here, our experience, and pass it on.”

The episode featured today was first broadcast on September 12, 2011.