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John Vassos

Industrial Design for Modern Life

2016
Author:

Danielle Shapiro

John Vassos

The first biography of a renowned industrial designer and illustrator who shaped the look of modern technology

Danielle Shapiro is the first to examine the life and work of John Vassos, who was the Radio Corporation of America’s key consultant designer through the rise of radio and television and into the computer era. Replete with rich behind-the-product stories of America’s design culture in the 1930s through the 1950s, this volume also chronicles the emergence of what was to become the nation’s largest media company.

John Vassos is a complex portrait of an artist and designer whose early illustration work criticized the tempo and commercialism of modern life but whose later design work took for granted those same qualities and attempted to accommodate people to them.

Jeffrey L. Meikle, University of Texas at Austin

What should a television look like? How should a dial on a radio feel to the touch? These were questions John Vassos asked when the Radio Corporation of America (RCA) asked him to design the first mass-produced television receiver, the TRK-12, which had its spectacular premier at the 1939 New York World’s Fair. Vassos emigrated from Greece and arrived in the United States in 1918. His career spans the evolution of central forms of mass media in the twentieth century and offers a template for understanding their success. This is Vassos’s legacy—shaping the way we interact with our media technologies. Other industrial designers may be more celebrated, but none were more focused on making radio and television attractive and accessible to millions of Americans.

In John Vassos: Industrial Design for Modern Life, Danielle Shapiro is the first to examine the life and work of RCA’s key consultant designer through the rise of radio and television and into the computer era. Vassos conceived a vision for the look of new technologies still with us today. A founder of the Industrial Designers Society of America, he was instrumental in the development of a self-conscious industrial design profession during the late 1920s and 1930s and into the postwar period. Drawing on unpublished records and correspondence, Shapiro creates a portrait of a designer whose early artistic work in books like Phobia and Contempo critiqued the commercialization of modern life but whose later design work sought to accommodate it.

Replete with rich behind-the-product stories of America’s design culture in the 1930s through the 1950s, this volume also chronicles the emergence of what was to become the nation’s largest media company and provides a fascinating glimpse into its early corporate culture. In our current era of watching TV on an iPod or a smartphone, Shapiro stimulates broad discussions of the meaning of technological design for mass media in daily life.

John Vassos

Danielle Shapiro is an independent scholar who has served as senior program officer in the Division of Public Programs at the National Endowment for the Humanities. She earned her PhD in art history and communications studies from McGill University.

John Vassos

John Vassos is a complex portrait of an artist and designer whose early illustration work criticized the tempo and commercialism of modern life but whose later design work took for granted those same qualities and attempted to accommodate people to them.

Jeffrey L. Meikle, University of Texas at Austin

In our current era of watching TV on an iPod or a smartphone, Shapiro stimulates broad discussions of the meaning of technological design for mass media in daily life.

ArtDaily.org

In the first complete picture of John Vassos, Danielle Shapiro definitively captures an industrial designer of the first rank.

Russell Flinchum, North Carolina State University

John Vassos energized 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, senior curator of contemporary design at Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum

Replete with rich behind-the-product stories of America’s design culture in the 1930s through the 1950s, this volume also chronicles the emergence of what was to become the nation’s largest media company and provides a fascinating glimpse into its early corporate culture.

Industrial Designers Society of America

Danielle Shapiro makes a convincing case for John Vassos's formerly unheralded, but highly significant, early contributions to the field now known as user interface (UI) design. The chapters about Vassos's design of knobs, dials, displays, and casings for RCA radios and studio recording machinery are especially illuminating. Furthermore, the book is beautifully written; the illustrations, almost all 'new', are aptly chosen; and the footnotes are a rich source of information not only about Vassos but also about twentieth-century design in general.

Carma Gorman, The University of Texas at Austin

John Vassos

Contents
Preface
Introduction: Creating Design We Can Live With
1. Drawing Modernity: Advertising and Book Illustrations
2. Becoming an Industrial Designer
3. Modernizing the Home through Radio
4. Designed for Electricity: Vassos’s Architectural Interiors
5. Vassos and RCA: Money, Media, and Modernism
6. The TRK-12: RCA’s First Mass-Marketed Television Receiver
7. John Vassos in Postwar America
Conclusion: The Legacy of John Vassos
Acknowledgments
Notes
Index