Written by Joseph McPartlin

There are many ways you can look at the modern world. Do you take a pessimistic or optimistic view? John Vassos questions his view of modernity in his 1931 illustrated book, Phobia. He uses “optimistic” Art Deco forms to convey twenty-three phobias as a “pessimistic” look into the modern world.

John Vassos is hailed as one of the quintessential Art Deco designers. As an illustrator and industrial designer he used Art Deco’s simplified, restrained and stylized rectilinear and curvilinear forms that represented an optimistic embrace of modernity. The result of this are architecturally inspired, graphic, geometric, and stylized representations.

Art historian, Michael Windover explains that using Art Deco forms, “architects, designers, and their patrons were actively trying to represent what they thought modernity should look like based on the conditions they faced—e.g., mechanized and mass production, new technologies of transportation and communication, increasing urbanization, and heightened nationalism.”1 These conditions can be seen in Phobia’s illustrations: mechanized and mass production in Mechanophobia (fear of machinery), new technology of transportation in Dromophobia (fear of crossing the street), increasing urbanization in Agoraphobia (fear of open spaces), Claustrophobia (fear of enclosed spaces) Acrophobia (fear of heights), Climacophobia (fear of falling down stairs), Aichmophobia (fear of sharp and pointed objects), and Batophobia (fear of falling objects).

Within Phobia, Vassos subverts Art Deco’s embrace of modernity by aligning it with the conditions in which phobias develop. He uses Art Deco’s forms and iconography as a stylistic tool to situate the reader into an anxiety ridden phobic experience.

Joseph McPartlin is a graduate student in the History of Design and Curatorial Studies program through Parsons and the Cooper Hewitt. He is also a Fellow for the National Design Awards at the Cooper Hewitt.

  1. Michael Windover, Art Deco: A Mode of Mobility (PUQ, 2012), 7.

One thought on “Pessimistic Optimism


I am great nephew and namesake of my great uncle John Vassos and I am looking for someone to engage with to discuss placement of several items in my possession from the estate of my great uncle

Please let me know if we may arrange for a conversation – Thank you

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