Book Review: John Vassos — Shaping the Look of Modern Technology
John Vassos: Industrial Design for Modern Life is not only an essential book for designers, but for those who love the history of design.
John Vassos: Industrial Design for Modern Life, by Danielle Shapiro, University of Minnesota Press, 274 pages, $35 in paperback.
By Mark Favermann
Like many prominent pioneers of industrial design, John Vassos began modestly before attaining success. However, unlike most of his colleagues, Vassos began as an artist/designer whose early illustration work severely criticized the high speed commercialism of modern life. Later, he changed direction; his designs took for granted the acceleration of consumerism. At first a rebel, Vassos morphed into a member-in-good-standing of the corporate establishment.
John Vassos (1898-1985) was an enormously talented graphic and industrial designer whose career stretched from the 1920s through the 1980s. He was born of Greek parents in Sulina, Romania, but spent his early youth in the Ottoman Empire’s Constantinople, now Istanbul. From adolescence, Vassos demonstrated impressive artistic skill, but his sharply confrontational politics (satiric cartoons/illustrations) made life in Turkey too difficult. He left at the age of 16, going on to serve in the British Army on troop ships during WW I. He eventually emigrated to the US in 1918 and initially lived, studied, and worked in Boston.
While in Boston, he studied under John Singer Sargent and the Modernist set designer Joseph Urban at the Boston Opera Company. He also worked as a window dresser at the Columbia Gramophone Company on Temple Street, where he promoted “talking machines.” From the start, Vassos’ creative vision intertwined art and technology.
Vassos moved to New York City in 1921 from Boston. He opened his own studio, accepting any work assignments that came in. In the evenings and on weekends he studied at the Art Students League with some noted artists and teachers, including George Bridgeman and John Sloan. In NYC, he found his talents drawn in a number of directions; he created window displays (a place where many pioneering industrial designers first exercised their skill), murals, theatrical set designs, and advertising illustrations. Among his clients were Cammeyer Shoes, Bonwit Teller, and General Tires. His work was noted for its restrained palette and strong sense of personal style.
Surprisingly, historian Danielle Shapiro’s biography is the first in-depth look at Vassos. She chronicles his long career by focusing on important points in his work and life experiences. In revelatory ways he is very much a willful, but tragically limited, man of his times — both culturally and socially. For example, Vassos’ wife, Ruth, collaborated with him on his beautifully designed books, but he took all the credit; he wrote highly anti-Semitic comments in his non-fiction volume Contempo.
As a creative force, Vassos was omnivorous; he worked his way through various media, ranging from hand-painted advertising cards to posters to designs for television sets and computer mainframes. His résumé includes radio and television receivers and cabinets, training brochures for military spies, elegantly tapered subway turnstiles, and even bookshelves with built-in stereos. Shapiro discusses his designs for knobs, switches, dials, displays, and casings for RCA radios and studio recording machinery.
Vassos’ career spanned the first decades of radio and television and even reaches into the computer era. Predating Apple’s aesthetic by half a century, he recognized the importance of making designs for machines user-friendly. His accomplishment on this front include RCA’s first mass-produced television set. When I was a young boy, my father once told me about seeing his first TV set at the 1939 New York World’s Fair. It was designed by John Vassos.
In her biography, Shapiro argues that Vassos should be acknowledged as a major industrial design pioneer, along with Walter Dorwin Teague, Norman Bel Geddes, Raymond Lowey, Donald Deskey, Greta von Nessen, Russel Wright, Henry Dreyfus, Eliot Noyes and several others who could (roughly) be seen as his contemporaries. His significance goes well beyond his early attractive designs and illustrations; there’s also his later contributions to what has become known as user interface (UI) design, objects whose use and accessibility are self-evident.
Vassos described his graphic and illustration style as his attempt to tap into collective psychological desires, “to capture subconscious life, to strip illustration of its allegiance to realism and let it be influenced by modernity.” He also felt that his art should reflect the technological zeitgeist and move the viewer with its novelty. In that sense, his work represents an early example of the dovetailing of Modernism and consumerism. His early projects in advertising were influenced by his art; his art was inspired by his conceptions for consumer products. As for his book covers and illustrations, their design is often fluid, but many offer a sparseness, a minimalist touch.
According to his biographer, Vassos has been a neglected figure. He was a highly prolific industrial designer and artist during the rise of the mass broadcast media, yet many histories of industrial design either leave him out or play down his considerable accomplishments. This treatment may be attributed, at least in part, to Vassos’ prejudice again Jews, though Shapiro points out that he worked for and with many Jewish companies and designers collegially throughout his long career.
John Vassos: Industrial Design for Modern Life is well-written and comes with perceptively chosen illustrations. Shapiro’s text and footnotes provide enormous amounts of intriguing information, placing Vassos in the context of twentieth-century design — acknowledging such influencing trends as Art Deco, Streamlined, and Mid-Century Modern. It was Vassos who thought about, and then elegantly designed, how a radio dial should feel to the touch as well as look. And he put his design imprint on the look of a television set as well as how it handles. Just think of your car radio dials — John Vassos set the design standards for these decades ago.
Shapiro squarely faces the fact that Vassos was a man of complex contradictions. He was both a successful producer of mass culture and a strident critic; he deftly navigated between the worlds of art and commerce. Enriched by extensive research and balanced sympathy for her not always attractive subject, she makes a compellingly rational case that Vassos was more than a pioneer in graphic and industrial design — he is a major figure in the field. John Vassos, Industrial Design for Modern Life is not only an essential book for designers, but for those who love the history of design.
An urban designer, Mark Favermann has been deeply involved in branding, enhancing, and making more accessible parts of cities, sports venues, and key institutions. Also an award-winning public artist, he creates functional public art as civic design. Mark created the Looks of the 1996 Centennial Olympic Games in Atlanta, the 1999 Ryder Cup Matches in Brookline, MA, and the 2000 NCAA Final Four in Indianapolis. The designer of the renovated Coolidge Corner Theatre, he has been a design consultant to the Red Sox since 2002. He has previously written for The Phoenix, Art New England, American Craft Magazine, Boston Herald, Blueprint (UK), Design (UK), and Leonardo.