New blog post on the Smithsonian Archives of American Art website on John Vassos and Television Design
Recently, I wrote here about the Advanced Design Center at RCA. There is more on it and Vassos's contribution to television design at the 1939/1940 New York World's Fair in this blog post on the Smithsonian Archives of American Art website. Click here to read the post. I am grateful for the incredible assistance of the Archives of American Art staff, especially curator Liza Kirwin and Elizabeth Botten as well as the newly retired Darcy Tell. My project owes a lot to their kind persistence as I worked my way through the archives over a period of ten years! There is a lot of material there, over 20 boxes, and since it is uncatalogued, I had to revisit the archives many, many times. I also had a Douglass Postdoctoral Fellowship to conduct research in 2005 and 2006 and was able to devote my time to work in the archives as well as share my work with other fellows and scholars at the Smithsonian Institution.
Excited to be speaking at the NYPL Schwarzman Building Celeste Auditorium on June 14th at 6pm about John Vassos: Industrial Design for Modern Life
Please join me on June 14th at 6pm at the NYPL for my New York City book launch and a lively conversation about John Vassos, radio design and art deco style. More information to come soon! Here is the link to the event on the New York Public Library's website So excited to be speaking at a place that is so special to me - I did research here for the book in the 1939/1940 New York World's Fair Archives, in the Performing Arts Library which has many Dance Magazines which Vassos created illustrations for and also in the central collection which has many of his books. It is a dream come true to talk in the library with the lions! I don't think I will get a giant banner on the side of the building though, too bad.
Thanks #Hamptons Art Hub for featuring my book in your Design Book List for April 2016! #University of Minnesota Press http://hamptonsarthub.com/2016/04/11/books-design-book-list-april-2016/#.VxQyrM7ZUg0.twitter
John Vassos knew Nedick's, a popular chain of open air hot dog stands, needed to step up its game - in 1931 he proposed to the company that it needed to stand out among the "million dollar lobbies to which the public of New York has free access." Public taste has been improved, he argued, and Nedick's needed to appeal to the "stenographers, clerks and shop girls familiar with the Empire State Building, the Chanin Tower and the Chrysler Buildings" where Nedicks were located. The company was convinced and soon hired Vassos, a prominent modern illustrator who had made his name illustrating books for E.P. Dutton, to redesign their restaurant from top to bottom.
He transformed the entire environment, including menus, logos and staff uniforms and left a lasting imprint on the restaurant event into the 2000s when the last remaining Nedick's was left in the shadow of Penn Station. In the 1930s, designers like Vassos were asked by restaurant owners to update their restaurants. Vassos brought his interior design skills and attention to the psychology of the customer. He framed the restaurant's redesign in terms of making a commitment to the public sphere. He wrote "a few years ago, the typical open-air stand was a decided eyesore to the community." What he suggested was nothing short of an "architectural gallery" which would draw customers and allow them to eat their hot dogs in style.
Among his lasting contributions to the restaurant, which became somewhat of a cult among New Yorkers who loved the orange drink it served, were the serif cursive logo of the underlined Nedick's name, the lighting as the restaurant was very popular at night, the Formica counters, and the color palette. His counter was a tribute to the new wonders of Bakelite - a curved combination of semi-circles and straight lines with chrome accents in the streamlined fashion of the day. Not only could the counter be quickly wiped and its clean-lines attractive but the shape also accommodated the maximum number of customers in a limited space. The counters also allowed each customer to have a bit of privacy as they ate - "no one likes to eat looking into the face of a stranger four feet across from him munching his food," as Vassos wrote in his proposal. In terms of lighting, Vassos was aware of the effect of light on the customer - especially in midtown Manhattan at night - the luminous boxes of light mirrored the curving counter and were diffused downwards to avoid giving an annoying glare for those who preferred eating their hot dogs in an attractive setting. A classy hot dog joint indeed - the restaurant Vassos designed matched the machine age beauty of the skyscrapers that surrounded it. High taste for a low brow meal - Vassos also designed the Chrysler building penthouse for his friend photographer Margaret Bourke-White across the street. Indeed, this was class for the masses, to paraphrase Roland Marchand's characterization of advertising in the era. The image above is from the midtown stand at the busy corner of 7th Avenue and 47th Street.
Image credit: Broadcast News, February 1934, p. 18, Courtesy of Hagley Museum and Library.
Great Book Launch! It was a big success with over 50 people in attendance. Watch the video where I talk about John Vassos: Industrial Design for Modern Life.
Here is the video of my book talk on April 7, 2016 at the fabulous Ivy Bookshop in Baltimore. Click here Well, actually it is 11 minutes of the video, I will post the rest of it soon, but it gives you a flavor for the talk. Thank you to all who made the event a huge success including Ed Berlin, the owner of the Ivy Bookshop and you staff including Larry, Heather Skinner, Shelby, and Matt Smiley at the University of Minnesota Press, friends, family, the "ladies of Sulgrave Avenue" book group, and my husband Bruce for taking the video and his incredible support for this project - that is Bruce in the picture when I was setting up and getting the slide show ready.
Thank you IDSA for featuring new John Vassos Biography on your website! John Vassos was the First Chair of IDSA and cared deeply about the profession of industrial design, as one of its founders.
John Vassos first go the idea for his iconic 1929 book Phobia while visiting a friend at Shepard Pratt Hospital just outside of Baltimore, Maryland. His friend had suffered from a nervous breakdown, which caused Vassos to ponder the roots of mental suffering. At the hospital, Vassos met Harry Stack Sullivan, a prominent psychiatrist and the founder of interpersonal analysis, who consulted with him about the book and remained a life-long friend. Vassos's book tapped into America's growing love affair with Freud. Historian Ann Douglas notes that bohemians in particular gravitated to Freudianism, holding “Freuding parties” and analyzing each other, and cutting-edge theater and literature also featured Freudian themes.[i] 1500 copies of the book were published and all were signed by the author himself. In writing and illustrating the book, Vassos gained a foundational understanding of psychology that shaped his industrial design career in profound ways.
[i] Douglas, Terrible Honesty, 123–25.
Dream Phobias a dance based on John Vassos's Book Phobia premiered almost 83 years ago today at Barbican Plaza with Felicia Sorel and Gluck-Sandor
The Dance Centre on March 31, 1933 gave a special performance at New York City's Barbizon Plaza, of husband and wife team Gluck-Sandor's, the chief dancer and choreographer and dancer Felicia Sorel's much anticipated dance "Dream Phobias," based on John Vassos's book Phobia - he designed the sets, with music by A. Lehman Engel. There was also a performance of Debussy's "Afternoon of a Faun." The dance "Dream Phobia" was in the works since 1931. Vassos co-founded the modern experimental Dance Centre in collaboration with choreographer Senya Gluck-Sandor amd Felicia Sorel (Gluck-Sandor to Vassos, 22 December 1936, box 7, Vassos papers, AAA). This image shows them in their full cubist costume glory.