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.
Big thanks to the Art Deco Society of Washington DC and especially Jim Linz, President Emeritus, and Steve Knight, President, for inviting me to speak at the Bowie Library today followed by a tour of the National Capital Radio and Television Museum (also a sponsor). Jim brought not one but two Vassos-designed RCA Victor Specials from his collection which illustrated perfectly my point that Vassos used modernistic shapes and new materials in his quest to bring modern design to RCA. Jim also brought along a teardrop phonograph player which is not designed by Vassos (he didn't like to use extreme streamlined shapes). The audience included not one but two former employees of RCA, one was an engineer who worked for many years for RCA Limited in Montreal and the other was also an engineer and an RCA employee in Camden, NJ where John Vassos had an office for many years. Other audience members included a graphic designer who fell in love with Vassos's graphic illustrations and members of the Art Deco Society of Washington DC. They asked amazing questions like what was one surprising thing that I found out about Vassos during my research? How did the book Phobia influence his industrial design work? What were his other books? Was he a mentor to other artists and designers? What languages did he speak? The event was so stimulating to me and enjoyable for the audience too, based on the feedback I received. After the talk, we headed to the National Capital Radio and Television Museum for a tour of their excellent collection providing an overview of radio and television history. I was happy that their collection included a recently acquired Vassos-designed TRK-12 television. I loved seeing the early, crystal radio sets brought to life by their wonderful docents and the 1920s radios like the rare piano shaped radio - backing up a main point in my talk that radio had no concrete shape or form and could go in any direction. There was no consensus about what it should look like. My other favorite in their collection was the art deco radio that doubled as a bar.
Thank you to the Department of Art and Architecture at the New York Public Library for inviting me to speak about John Vassos last week! Over 70 people attended the talk in the gorgeous Celeste auditorium. I met with collectors of John Vassos books and radios and got some great leads for an exhibition of John Vassos. The audience asked hard questions - like how would John Vassos have designed the iPhone? I thought he would do it in a similar way to Jonathan Ives given Vassos's affinity for the Bauhaus School and for simple, clean design. Vassos's products are notable and recognizable for their simplicity of design, frequent use of geometric shapes, squares and circles and deep attention t the user. He always kept the user in mind especially when thinking about the user interface and touch, these are elements which has made Apple so successful in the design of their products. My next talk will be at the Bowie Library on July 16. If you are in the Maryland/DC area, please come! It will be followed by a tour of the National Capital Television and Radio Museum.
I was so honored that John Vassos's great niece Jayne attended my talk at the New York Public Library on Tuesday, June 14. She has been a great support for this project lending me images and materials from her personal collection and telling me amazing stories of her famous Uncle John who she was close to as a young woman. Thank you Jayne!!!