Industrial Design for Modern Life
As a consultant for the Radio Corporation of America, John Vassos (American, born Romania, 1898–1985) literally shaped the new media of television and radio. In addition to his industrial design work for RCA and other clients, the multitalented Vassos illustrated books and advertisements, painted murals, modernized interiors, devised promotional strategies, developed an educational curriculum for industrial designers, and established an organization for design professionals. Yet despite Vassos’s vast contributions to his field, he has received little attention from scholars and historians.
Born in Romania of Greek parentage, Vassos spent most of his early life in Istanbul (Constantinople at the time) and arrived in the United States in 1918. He studied with John Singer Sargent and Joseph Urban in Boston, where he worked as a window dresser for a gramophone company, and with John Sloan of the Ashcan School and George Bridgman at the Art Students League in New York. In 1923 Vassos established New York Display Services, which created window designs and dynamic, modernistic advertisements for a broad range of clients, including the French Line, Bonwit Teller, Packard Motor Company, and Cammeyer shoes.
A commission to design labels for the Armand line of cosmetics and skin care products led to Vassos’s first industrial design, the restyling of a medicinal-looking bottle containing a cream astringent. The new, more elegant packaging with its stylish Art Deco-inspired curves and a screw-off top in place of the original cork could double as a flask, adding to the popularity of the product during Prohibition.
Phonograph, RCA Victor Special, model N, ca. 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
Modernistic advertisement for Cammeyer shoes, illustrated by John Vassos, Harper’s Bazaar, April 1927. Private collection.
Turnstile from the main lobby of the Brooklyn Museum, ca. 1932. John Vassos, designer; Perey Company, New York, manufacturer. Iron, enameled and chromium-plated steel. Reprinted with permission of The Wolfsonian-Florida International University, Miami, Florida, The Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection,TD1989.50.1. Photo: Silvia Ros
Vassos went on to style a wide range of industrial products—flatware for Wallace Silversmiths, fountain pens for Waterman, stoves for Montgomery Ward, shotguns for Remington, even harmonicas for musical instrument manufacturer Hohner. One of his most enduring designs was a restyled Perey turnstile. Vassos covered the propeller-like arms and bulky base of the device with metal casings that sheathed the sharp edges. He later developed an automatic turnstile, the Passimeter, which eliminated the propellers in favor of three arms that moved forward rather than in a circular pattern. The streamlined Perey Passimeter made its debut at the 1933 Century of Progress International Exposition in Chicago and is still manufactured today.
Although Vassos maintained an independent practice throughout his career, he had a long association with RCA, which retained him as a consultant for thirty-eight years. In designing the company’s early radios, Vassos sought to avoid “over-decoration” and emphasize the device’s function, namely, the reproduction of sound. His simplified cabinets with Art Deco details replaced the traditional cathedral-like shape of console models, which he called the “tombstone.” He took modernity a step further in his smaller tabletop radios, molded from synthetic plastic with curvilinear grilles and features such as push-button tuning. In the New Yorker model of 1939, he opted for a more rectangular form with a large central speaker that prefigured the next major advance in technology, television. Vassos also became involved in the promotion and sales of RCA products, which gave him an opportunity to apply his keen understanding of consumer psychology.
Vassos also designed phonographs for RCA, including the iconic RCA Victor Special, found today in the collections of a number of decorative arts museums. A streamlined aluminum suitcase enclosed the turntable, and the interior included folders for record storage and, in some models, red velvet detailing.
When television debuted to the American public in 1939 at the New York World’s Fair, Vassos’s streamlined TRK-12 receiver was on display in the RCA pavilion and throughout the fairgrounds. Also on view in the pavilion was the Phantom TRK-12, a transparent Lucite interpretation of the receiver that revealed its inner mechanism.
In addition to RCA’s consumer products, Vassos designed equipment for the firm’s studios, such as cameras and microphones, as well as the interiors of the studios. Other interior projects included studios for photographer Margaret Bourke-White and two Manhattan restaurants, Nedick’s at Broadway and 47th Street, with its curvilinear counter of bright orange Bakelite laminate, and the Rismont Tea Room at Broadway and 38th Street.
During the Second World War, Vassos worked in the camouflage unit of the Office of Strategic Services, a precursor to the Central Intelligence Agency, and headed the training school for the agency’s secret intelligence section. At war’s end, he resumed his position with RCA, at the same time continuing to style products for other clients. The Constellation jukebox he designed in 1946 for Mills Industries is a coveted collector’s item today. He also modernized United Artists’ movie theaters and participated in the US government’s International Trade Fair Program, designing pavilions for fairs in Karachi and New Delhi. In 1955 he received the Industrial Design Institute’s Medal of Merit.
Visitors encircle RCA’s “phantom television” model TRK-12 designed by John Vassos with its clear cabinet, exhibited in the RCA pavilion at the 1939-40 New York World’s Fair. Photograph ca. 1939. Courtesy of the Hagley Museum and Library.
This article is an excerpt from a book review of Danielle Shapiro's John Vassos: Industrial Design for Modern Life (University of Minnesota Press, 2016) originally published for the For Your Art Deco Library column in the Art Deco New York journal, Vol. 1, Issue 2, Winter 2016. View a digital version of the full journal here.
RCA Radio Model 96x, designed by John Vassos, ca. 1939, unknown photographer. John Vassos papers, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.