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John Vassos: Industrial Design for Modern Life

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June 14, 2016

What should a television look like? How should a radio dial feel to the touch? This program will discuss industrial designer John Vassos’s contribution to the design of radio and television when they were new. In John Vassos: Industrial Design for Modern Life, Danielle Shapiro is the first to examine the life and work of John Vassos (1898-1985), a Greek émigré and an important industrial designer and Art Deco illustrator who shaped the look and feel of modern technology as Radio Corporation of America’s key consultant designer through the rise of radio and television and into the computer era. More than a half century before the iPod, Vassos recognized the significance of design to make machines user friendly including RCA’s first mass produced television set which had its spectacular premier at the 1939/1940 New York World’s Fair.

 Industrial Design for Modern Life

John Vassos’s contributions to American design have been overlooked for decades. His highly functional and visually striking contributions included turnstiles, radios, phonographs, jukeboxes, televisions, total environments for movie theaters, international expositions, and restaurants. John Vassos considered RCA, NBC, United Artists, Waterman Pens, Nedick’s restaurant, and the United States Government among his scores of national clients. For these and other firms, John Vassos produced hundreds of designs. Drawing on unpublished records in archives at the New York Public Library, the Smithsonian Institution’s Archives of American Art, and other institutions, Shapiro creates a portrait of an artist whose iconic books like Phobia and Contempo critiqued the commercialization of modern life but whose later design work sought to accommodate it.

Copies of John Vassos: Industrial Design for Modern Life (University of Minnesota Press, 2016) are available for purchase and signing at the end of event.

Phonograph, RCA Victor Special, model N, c. 1937 designed by John Vassos.

Published with permission of The Wolfsonian–Florida International University, Miami, Florida, The Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection, XX1989.415. Photo: Bruce White.

Danielle Shapiro is the author of  John Vassos: Industrial Design for Modern Life and an independent scholar who has a Ph.D. from the department of Art History and Communications Studies from McGill University. Her research has been funded by the Fulbright Association and the Smithsonian Institution’s Archives of American Art and the Smithsonian American Art Museum. She has been a visiting scholar at the Wolfsonian Museum and taught at Harvard University, Hunter College, and American University. Her writing on art and design history has been published in places like Design Issues, Ciel Variable, and the Archives of American Art Journal. Until recently, she was a Senior Program Officer in the Division of Public Programs at the National Endowment for the Humanities, in Washington D.C.

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