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/