My biography of John Vassos recently won a coveted Choice Award from the American Library Association, in the category of History of Science and Technology. It is thrilling to be among the top publications of the year in this category. The American Library Association chooses from thousands of books that they have featured in their reviews in the past year. Here is the listing and the formidable books also chosen for that award as well as the book review. Thank you ALA!
Greek American John Vassos was associated for more than 40 years with RCA and changed the face of the important media corporation, as I tell my students not familiar with the 20th century powerhouse, the Apple Company of its day. In 1935 Vassos suggested to owner David Sarnoff that they change RCA's logo from the traditional one showing Edison's faithful dog responding to the sound of "his master's voice" via phonograph to something more fitting for the machine age. His image of a stylized head with an electronic brain graphically combined the user-friendliness of RCA radios (and other products) with the fine mechanical circuitry giving listeners the excellent tuning and audio that RCA products promised. As a leading consultant designer to the company, Vassos shaped these user-friendly radios by adding easy to read tuning windows, large knobs and other elements. He came up with the idea for the Magic Brain advertising campaign which expanded to include a Magic Eye referring to tuning precision - when he observed the mechanical components of the radios. Although the conservative Sarnoff preferred the "Master's Voice" logo which persisted for many years and the so called "meatball" logo with the RCA letters underscored with a lightening bolt, the Magic Brain logo was employed from 1935-1940, a time when the cooperation moved to a top ranking among electronics firms. The logo was such a powerful icon for the company, that J. Walter Thompson company decided to use it as their spring board for their adaptation advertising the 1975 RCA Colortrak system (see the ad above). When Vassos retired from the company, they referred to him a the magic brain of the company in a plaque presented to him at his retirement party. You may not have heard of John Vassos since he did not have a big agency like other industrial designer pioneers from the 1930s, but he had a signifiant role in shaping the iconography of the radio age as well as the radios and televisions themselves for the United State's largest electronics manufacturer, RCA. You can learn more about John Vassos in my book, the first biography of this important designer, John Vassos: Industrial Design for Modern Life.
I am so excited to be speaking at the Hagley Museum and Library on March 16. The Hagley holds the David Sarnoff Papers which were instrumental in my book to tell the story of John Vassos's relationship with RCA. The Hagley Library also holds the rights to Broadcast News, the in-house journal of RCA, which I used to illustrate Vassos's contributions to RCA throughout my book. For example, I included this page above which welcomed Vassos to RCA in 1932 and showed him surrounded by his many illustrations and designs from Salome, from Phobia, the Packard advertisement, interiors for Nedick's restaurant and other work. He was hired to make RCA more profitable in their radio manufacturing business which had fallen to 5th in the country.
Here are the details:
AUTHOR TALK: INDUSTRIAL DESIGN FOR MODERN LIFENEXT DATE: March 16, 2017 | 7 p.m. | Thursday
CATEGORY: ACADEMIC PROGRAMS, FEATURE ON HOME PAGE, AUTHOR TALKS, ADULT PROGRAMS | LOCATION:LIBRARY, SODA HOUSEDanielle Shapiro (Independent Scholar), “Industrial Design for Modern Life: John Vassos and RCA”
This lecture is open to the public.
Those planning to attend should r.s.v.p. to Carol Lockman, clockman@Hagley.org or call 302-658-2400, ext. 243.
In her talk, Industrial Design for Modern Life, Dr. Danielle Shapiro will explore the life and career of John Vassos, a Greek émigré who rose from anonymity as an advertising artist to become one of the pioneering founders of the industrial design profession. As the Radio Corporation of America's (RCA) leading designer, Vassos shaped the aesthetics of modern technology in the postwar era and became one of the most influential industrial designers of the twentieth century.
Danielle Shapiro is the author of the first biography of John Vassos, John Vassos: Industrial Design for Modern Life. Shapiro earned a Ph.D. from the Department of Art History and Communications Studies from McGill University. Her awards and distinctions are numerous and include a teaching fellowship at Harvard University, a Fulbright Award, postdoctoral fellowships at the Archives of American Art and the Smithsonian American Art Museum, and at the Wolfsonian Museum. Dr. Shapiro has also served as Senior Program Officer at the National Endowment for the Humanities, taught courses at American University, Hunter College, and Emerson College, and has authored numerous journal articles.
Read more about Hagley Author Talks here.
Happy Birthday John Vassos! John Vassos would have celebrated his 118th birthday today! Raise a glass of ozu to him as you listen to a 45rpm on a RCA phonograph player.
John Vassos participated as a panelist at the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) in New York City in 1956 to discuss two concurrent exhibitions about design. 20th Century Useful Objects at MOMA was curated by Arthur Drexler, who had recently taken over his post from the original curator of the department Philip Johnson. Jay Doblin, Director of the Illinois Institute of Technology’s Institute of Design and prominent industrial designer curated One Hundred Best Mass Produced Products exhibit held there. The Institute of Design had been founded in 1937 by émigré designer Lasolo Moholo Nagy in Chicago as a “New Bauhuas.” It became officially incorporated into the Illinois Institute of Technology in 1952.[ii] Vassos was one of the prominent industrial designers invited to select objects for the exhibit. Industrial Design magazine brought these major design professionals, including together to discuss the wide differences in the choices and criteria of the selection. The discussion revealed Vassos’s priorities as an industrial designer and growing distance from the elite design establishment.
Although the curators’ choices overlapped occasionally, there were stark distinctions and mutual disregard for each other’s criteria particularly in terms of the mass market. Drexler was critical of most mass-produced products as “their design seldom rise above the vulgarity of today’s high pressure ‘salesmanship’ although he included a few of them in his exhibition like Marcello Nizzoli's Olivetti typewriter Lexicon 80 (1948) and his Necchi Mirella sewing machine (1957).[iii] While Vassos conceded that marketing did sometimes have a role in mediating the success of an object, they could be objects of beauty and functionality. He questioned Drexler’s overall heavy emphasis on chairs and lack of consideration of electronics.
As Vassos said:
I don’t see any applications of mechanistic and electronic concepts. And even the historical comment was lacking. It is an esoteric exhibit, an exhibit dealing with the likes and dislikes of form. In a way, I almost felt it was a chair exhibit. The stress is so much on seating that one wondered if it weren’t a scientific demonstration of the body’s comfort in various sitting positions.[iv]
Indeed, the designer concluded that what was missing from the MOMA exhibit was precisely a sense of design. There was lacking, he said, “any emphasis on the mass-produced unit which is intrinsic to our society and our objective—the thing that is well-designed with a feeling for the machine behind it.” [v] Not surprisingly, Vassos’s top pick for the exhibit was a ultiliatian machine, the elegant 1953 Schick razor by Carl Otto which incorporated a small motor and a “pleasing aesthetic sculptural form.”[vi] Other top ten designs in the Illiniois exhibit were commercial favorites such as the 1953 Studebaker hard-top coupe and the Bell “500” phone. They did include one chair – the Eames plywood and steel side chair which Vassos noted was the first Eames chair that took into consideration the head.
@all rights reserved, copyright Danielle Shapiro
[i] “Design Institute Elects John Vassos a Trustee,” 1948.
[ii] Franz Schulze, Edward Windhorst, Mies Van Der Rohe: A Critical Biography (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2012), 238-239.
[iii] “Design as Commentary,” Industrial Design Magazine, February 1959, 58.
[iv] “Design as Commentary,” 61.
[vi] Vassos to Doblin, 11, Februrary 1958, Box 4, Vassos/AAA.
Please come to my lecture at the excellent SVA MA Design Research, Writing, and Criticism program located at 136 W 21st, 2nd Floor, NYC. It is free, but you need to register here: http://designresearch.sva.edu/public/danielle-shapiro-design-historian-and-author-of-john-vassos-industrial-design-for-modern-life/
Thrilled to be featured on the Roughly Speaking podcast talking about my biography of John Vassos . It aired today. Talking to Dan Rodricks was among the most pleasant experiences of my life - he is so easy to talk to about design and history. Here is the link to the show: http://www.baltimoresun.com/news/maryland/dan-rodricks-blog/bal-roughly-speaking-john-vassos-story.html
Am excited to be recording my first podcast, indeed my first radio type thing, about my John Vassos: Industrial Design for Modern Life. The host of Roughly Speaking is the award winning journalist Dan Rodricks who was the host of WYPR's Midday radio show and a long time Baltimore Sun reporter. I oversaw a number of grants for radio programs while a program officer at NEH, including Back Story with the History Guys, Speaking of Faith, and Afropop, but have never been on a radio show or podcast. It will be very cool to be on the radio/podcast talking about the history of radio. Not sure when it will air, but will keep you posted! #excited #radiohistory
Please come hear a lecture about John Vassos on September 10 at 11am at the Enoch Pratt Library in Roland Park - part of the Writer's Live Series. It is a special place for a lecture since I did a bunch of editing for the book at this beautiful library in leafy Roland Park. John Vassos has a special connection to Baltimore since it was at the Sheppard Pratt hospital where he got the idea for his book Phobia. He was visiting a friend who had a nervous breakdown and who was being treated by psychoanalyst Harry Stack Sullivan. They became friends and Vassos consulted with him on his 1931 limited edition masterpiece. If you come to my talk, you will hear about this and the incredible drawings and designs for radios and televisions that made John Vassos one of the most important industrial designers of the 20th century. Click here for more information about the talk. My book John Vassos: Industrial Design for Modern Life, the first ever biography of John Vassos, will also be for sale.
The logo for the Silvermine Guild of Artists (now called the Silvermine Arts Center) was designed by prominent industrial designer and artist John Vassos., but his association with the organization is almost forgotten. The logo is a broad tree, divided into five branches representing the union of Painting, Sculpture, Drama , Music and Dance. The symbols hold reference to a common allegiance, among the basic human arts. Vassos thought the arts must be rooted in a place like Silvermine which was a very significant place to John Vassos who lived very close to it on Comstock Hill in the Silvermine area of Norwalk, Connecticut. Vassos was the President of the guild for 10 terms, in 1936, 1940, 1941, 1949-1955 and raised significant funds for the center using his considerable influence with RCA, where he worked as a consultant designer for almost four decades. The school building was named the John Vassos building in honor of his fundraising and leadership of the organization, as noted in the New York Times on May 27, 1950 which discusses the $50,000 gift received for the building. I am not sure if the sign is still there, please let me know if you are there. When he died, an exhibition "A Tribute to John Vassos, 1898-1985" was held for him in the "Vassos Gallery" which examined his leadership of the organization and role as a driving force behind the development of the Silvermine Guild. Fellow artist and Silvermine member Carlus Dyer in his moving tribute to John Vassos at the opening of the Vassos memorial exhibit, said that "Vassos was the most outstanding of its artist members.. and was vital to the expansion of the Guild as an art center of national status." His wide contributions to this organization are not mentioned on the Silvermine Story on their website, one of many exclusions for John Vassos. I hope that my work rediscovering Vassos and my new biography can help shed light on his significant contribution to this important regional art center and to American industrial design in the 20th century.