VES Co-Founder, Innovative Designer Dies

Albert Szabo, a co-founder of the Visual and Environmental Studies (VES) department who taught students to design perfection in everything from kitchen utensils to apartment complexes, died Dec. 17 at Mount Auburn Hospital after complications from surgery. He was 78.

“His focus was to show his students that they could design something better than they could buy,” said Orchard Professor in the History of Landscape John R. Stilgoe.

Szabo, who once studied under Walter Gropius, the founder of the Bauhaus movement in Germany, served on the Faculty of Architecture at the Graduate School of Design (GSD) for 42 years, the longest continuous tenure in the school’s history.

Along with GSD colleague Eduard F. Sekler, he envisioned the VES department as a way to harness a vital element of education that was once missing from Harvard.

“We thought it was just as important for undergraduates to be visually literate in addition to being literate in other ways,” said Sekler.

Together, Szabo and Sekler engaged in a furious and monumental battle with Faculty of Arts and Sciences officials, who initially resisted the idea of replacing the Architectural Sciences Department and legitimizing the arts, according to Sekler.

Emerging victorious in 1968, the pair helped to bring a new emphasis on visual arts and design to the College.

Szabo’s colleagues attribute a large part of this success to his work in the classroom, where his fervent dedication helped his students to see the world in new and different ways.

“He was absolutely stunning in his ability to make students think outside the box,” Stilgoe said. “His teaching convinced the students who were good with words and numbers that they could be astute visually and design in the real world environment.”

In his most popular class at Harvard, Szabo taught students to seek out the difference between objects that are personal from those that are generic.

With his students emerging as the most innovative leaders in industry, Szabo’s influence can be seen in anything from cutting edge computer software to ergonomic keyboards.

Both friends and family described Szabo as someone who taught everyone around him to find harmony and allure in places though least possible.

“He taught us to see the beauty of objects that other people had discarded and to see the world in a way that nobody else could,” said his daughter, Ellen B. Szabo ’77, remembering Sunday family outings to the junk yard.

Whether manipulating a rusty typewriter into an opus of political discourse or simply admiring the grace of a weathered piece of driftwood, Szabo made art of his found objects and gave them a greater purpose.

Those close to Szabo said his idealistic view of humanity and its capacity for creation translated directly into his devotion to his students.

“Every student that came in, every piece of driftwood that floated up to his shore—he had a vision of what they could be,” Ellen Szabo recalled. “He had this infectious joy in believing that every one of his students would do something extraordinary.”

Szabo leaves his wife Brenda Dyer Szabo ’48, his daughters Ellen B. Szabo, Rebecca D. Szabo and Jeannette D. Szabo, a son Stephen Szabo and four grandchildren.