One of the all-time best Christmas presents I ever received was a tiny black plastic transistor radio. It came with a single ear plug, a corded wrist strap, and a thin black vinyl case. There are no words to describe how absolutely fabulous it was, but I have a wonderful memory of bebopping through the snow across the street to my best friend’s house on Christmas night with my new little black transistor radio pressed up close to my ear. I couldn’t wait to show it to her.
I’d learned the pose—how a hip person listens to her music on her new fabulous transistor radio—from movies and the television. I don’t imagine I’ll ever feel or be quite as cool, with-it, or groovy as I was in that moment.
In truth you had to place it right up against your ear because of the poor sound quality, but the cool factor of such a portable transistor radio more than made up for its low fidelity.
TV had long taken over on the home entertainment front, but radio was where music lived. It was the mad mod days of music radio and in many ways the music you listened to, and how and where you listened to it, defined who you were or wanted to be in the world. AM or FM, you turned to the radio to tune into the pop or top 40, rock and roll, rhythm and blues, jazz, classical, or the country stations. And transistor radios made it a movable feast. The impact of the transistor may be difficult to imagine given today’s advanced technology. Earlier “portable” radios, with their rows of various sized tubes, capacitors, resistors and wires were portable only in the sense that a (strong) person could lift and move them from one spot in the home to another spot. The transistor completely changed how and where music could be played and with that design became free to completely reimagine what that might look like.
I loved my little transistor radio, but design-wise it doesn’t hold a candle to some of the more stylish models in MoMA’s collection, like the Panasonic R-72 Toot-A-Loop from the 1970s. The Toot-A-Loop is shaped like a big wrist bangle with a swivel hinge midway around. You could listen to your music while wearing it closed around your arm like mod jewelry making it quite the musical fashion statement, or slide it open into an “S”-like configuration. MoMA’s radio is white, but there were several color choices on offer.
Then there’s the Brionvega sleek Radio Cubo, model TS 502, from 1964: one of the most well-known collaborative efforts of the German designer Richard Sapper and Italian designer Marco Zanuso for the Italian electronics firm. The Radio Cubo features a clam shell style hinge that opens to operate (one side has the controls and the other side has the speaker) and closes for a more streamlined look when turned off, eliminating visual clutter of the electronic gadgetry. Its handle slides up and down, fitting perfectly snug against the outer case as does the antenna on the case top. This radio is still in production; the original good design remains the same, but the internal components and electronics have been upgraded. It also comes in several colors.
Another of the stylish portable personal transistor radios in the collection is the French designer and architect Marc Berthier’s 1967 water resistant, rubber-cased Tykho Radio for Lexon. The Tykho is also still in production and comes in a variety of bright colors; MoMA has the beautiful blue and orange versions.
And not to be skipped, missed, or left out in any way with its understated minimal elegance in off white is the classic Portable Transistor Radio, model T3, by German designer Dieter Rams for Braun in 1956.
The T3, the Tykho, Radio Cubo, and the Toot-A-Loop—along with a number of other radios, portable and not—can be seen in the exhibition Making Music Modern: Design for Ear and Eye, which is on view through Monday, January 18—just enough time for you to bebop on by and check out these designs. In fact, come join us in the galleries this Saturday, January 16, for STRATURDAY, when every hour, on the hour, between noon and 5:00 p.m., a musical guest will perform live on MoMA’s 1957 Fender Stratocaster. Warming things up for STRATURDAY are Making Music Modern: Rock, Punk and Other Abominations and See Me, Feel Me: Music, Design, and Tactility, two special hands-on Gallery Sessions programs exploring the ways in which art, design, and music engage our senses.