"I really enjoyed reading Danielle Shapiro's excellent book John Vassos: Industrial Design for Modern Life. In it, Shapiro makes a convincing case for Vassos's formerly unheralded, but highly significant, early contributions to the field now known as user interface (UI) design. I found the chapters about Vassos's design of knobs, dials, displays, and casings for RCA radios and studio recording machinery especially illuminating. Furthermore, the book is beautifully written; the illustrations are aptly chosen and almost all are "new"; and the footnotes are a rich source of information not only about Vassos but also about twentieth-century design, generally. It's a great book! CARMA GORMAN, Ph.D., Associate Professor and Assistant Chair, Department of Art and Art History, University of Texas, Austin. Thank you Professor Gorman! Professor Gorman is the author of many books on industrial design including the excellent The Industrial Design Reader (2003) and the associate editor of the journal Design and Culture.
Don't want to brag but an article by Eve M. Kahn about my book and upcoming lecture at the New York Public Library on June 14 is featured in tomorrow's (June 3) New York Times in the Antiques and Design Section (scroll down, it is the second article). How wonderful!! Thanks to Ms. Kahn for a stimulating interview and for helping spread the word about the talk. University of Minnesota PressSmithsonian's Archives of American ArtNYPL The New York Public LibraryBooks on Call NYC, Inc.
John MacCrae Jr., Vice President of E.P. Dutton and Company, saw Vassos's poster for the play Salome at Columbia University and his modernistic advertisements and was impressed. He immediately contracted Vassos to illustrate three Oscar Wilde books starting with Salome published in 1927. The book sold over 15,000 and led Vassos to be called the new "Aubrey Beardsley" - who was the famous illustrator of Wilde's original books in England at the turn of the century. Reviewers praised the book like Edwin Bjorkman who wrote, "Had Wilde seen Salome and her environment with the vision of John Vassos, his play might have been a bigger one than it is now." A second edition of the book was printed in 1930 with four new illustrations "The Moon Was Seeking a Dead Thing," "I have Slipped in Blood," "There is a ...Terrible Silence" and "Salome Dances."
I am so excited to have found a copy of Contempo: This Modern Tempo with a rare cover. This was John and Ruth Vasoss's first independent book published in 1929 by E.P. Dutton. The book is critical of mass society and urban life which is why I like it so much and find it relevant today. John Vassos explained the book's goals as such in the introduction. He wrote that Contempo is “my first book of commentary on our Society, in which all our misconceptions and dead-ends come [under] scrutiny. . . . The book evokes criticism and controversy.”[i] In this book, they critiqued the major institutions of American life: mass media, transportation, banks, and religion, in a sweeping dismissal. For example, the text for "Traffic" describes it chillingly as a “Frankenstein that is choking our cities.” Ruth Vassos writes. “More and more powerful it grows, insidiously, it uncoils its length. It belches smoke, our lungs are filled with its poisonous breath. Our cities are disfigured.”[i] Writers gravitated towards the critical approach that Contempo inspired. Vassos allowed his friend - writer and editor - Tony Buttitta to use the title and graphic image for his progressive magazine published out of Chapel Hill, North Carolina between 1931 and 1934 and co-edited by Milton Abernethy. It featured writers like Langston Hughes, William Faulkner, Erskine Caldwell, and Julia Peterkin. Contempo was criticized among Southern political elite for its anti-racist position as documented in this excellent article from Modernism/modernity. Vassos expanded his of American life with a scathing criticism of racism and economic inequality offered in his book Humanities.
[i] See “Pictured Modernism,” review of Contempo, Gazette, Cedar Rapids, IA, November 3, 1929, Box 2, Vassos/AAA; “Modern Life Seen in Book,” Standard, New Bedford, MA, November 3, 1929, Box 2, Vassos/AAA..
[ii] Vassos, unpublished autobiography, Box 12, Vassos/AAA.
[i] “Traffic,” in John Vassos and Ruth Vassos, Contempo: This American Tempo (New York: Dutton, 1929), not paginated. [hereafter Contempo]
Packaging Design by John Vassos
John Vassos did packaging design mostly in the early 1930s for cosmetics companies like Armand company run by his friend Carl Weeks. His cleanlined glass bottles led the company into the modern age and marked his entry into the field of industrial design. These gorgeous cubist boxes were also created for the company. They would be a joy to open with their detailed print and striking green color. I love the little soft tassel on the box on the front on the right attached with a small pearl. Such an intriguing shape, they look like little presents. I wish I could them today. This page was taken from Advertising Arts, March 1932.
I am as happy as this smiling orange juice man logo that John Vassos created for Nedick's hot dog stand! My book has been receiving lots of praise from prominent design historians! Here is what my 2007 AIGA medalist, designer, historian, writer with over twenty books on design, and prolific curator at the Cooper-Hewitt, Smithsonian National Museum of Design Ellen Lupton said about the book:
"John Vassos hastened the flow of products, people, and media with his streamlined designs for everything from kitchen appliances to turnstiles and radios. Danielle Shapiro has created an original portrait of this important designer and this key period in American design and popular culture.” Ellen Lupton, Curator of Contemporary Design at Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum and Director of the Graphic Design MFA program at Maryland Institute College of Art
In the mid-1990s, I had the pleasure of working alongside Ellen Lupton as she planned her brilliant exhibition "Mechanical Brides: Women and Machines From Home to Office" and found some images for her book in the ample archives at the Cooper-Hewitt, Smithsonian National Museum of Design. I was working on an exhibition assistant on a show called "Packaging the New: Design and the American Consumer" - an extensive examination of industrial design and consumer culture with advisers like cultural historian Stuart Ewen, who was my graduate adviser at Hunter College at the time. Our exhibit, which had graphic design by Alexander Isley fresh off of his role as graphic designer at Spy Magazine and a 2014 recipient of the AIGA medal and was designed by exhibition and product designer Constainie Boym. This was a heady time for design history which was growing in leaps and bounds assisted by these exhibitions focused on the social, cultural and economic forces that shape the design of mass produced objects.
Please come to my talk and book signing at the NYPL - the one with the lions! I am very excited about this event which will include rare images from the Vassos archives and a discussion of the important work of John Vassos. I will discuss the early history of User Interaction and User Experience when the field was at the start. The same night of my talk at NYPL, in a nearby room, basketball legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar who has written a mystery novel will be chatting with author Walter Mosley.
Had a great time at the meet and greet at the Modernism Expo in DC sponsored by the Art Deco Society of Washington DC. Met dealers like this man "Deco Doug" from Michigan who wanted to buy my book to identify Vassos-designed radios and other items. This was my first time meeting with and seeing the real value of the book for antiques dealers. Also I met radio collectors and art deco fans. I spent time with members of the Art Deco Society of DC also and got to hear a record playing on a John Vassos designed RCA Victor Special, lovingly restored by antiques dealer and Art Deco Society of DC President Emeritus Jim Linz. He cranked up the portable gorgeous, gleaming phonograph and soon we hear Josephine Bakers singing in 1930s glory. The sound was amazing and the machine beautiful, especially the mirror image of the radio spinning on the upper area of the phonograph with files for record storage. A special day indeed. Didn't get to buy anything though I saw some great stuff - art deco tray with yellow cubist imagery and bakelite handles, I am thinking of you!
Please come visit me when I sign books at the Modernism Show sponsored by the Art Deco Society of Washington D.C. - part of the Big Flea at the Dulles Expo center in Chantilly, Virginia. Dealers there will have very rare John Vassos phonographs for sale and other items for the dedicated Vassos and RCA collector. I can't wait to meet the collectors and also check out the more than 700 booths. I am going to do some serious shopping there, my husband Bruce doesn't know that yet. He offered to drive me since it is a bit tricky to get to Virginia from Baltimore, where I live.
Book Giveaway on Goodreads! Enter to win a signed copy of John Vassos: Industrial Design for Modern Life.
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by Danielle Shapiro
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Danielle Shapiro, is a writer and author of the first biography of John Vassos, modernist Greek-American industrial designer - John Vassos: Industrial Design for Modern Life.