John Vassos

John Vassos

Greek / American
1898 - 1985


John Vassos was born in Sulina, Romania, in 1898. He spent his childhood in Istanbul. At the age of 13, he drew sketches for a political newspaper published in Istanbul but due to the controversial content of his drawings the Turkish government pursued him. His father helped him escape on a British ship where he worked as a general duties sailor. In 1919, after the end of World War I, he settled in Boston. He worked as a window cleaner and later as a billboard designer while attending classes at the Fenway Art School under John Singer Sargent. In the early 1920s, he began working as a stage designer assistant for the Ziegfeld Follies revue and the Boston Opera Company, and also designed promotional material for the record label Columbia Records. In 1924, he moved to New York, established the New York Display Company and produced designs for film premieres, magazines such as Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar, 5th Avenue’s storefronts and ads for brands such as Cammeyer shoes, Packard Cars, French Line, General Tires and Bonwit Teller. By this time, he had already developed his personal expressive style using black and white gouache in fine gradients and creating designs and forms with sharp shapes and demarcated edges. At the same time, he attended classes at the Art Students League under George Bridgman and John Sloan. He also continued to work as a stage designer for Billy Rose’s shows and to paint murals for movie theaters such as Rialto and Rivoli. The same year, he met his wife Ruth, who was a fashion designer. In 1926, he illustrated the program for Oscar Wilde’s play Salome. This work was the impetus for his collaboration with the E.P. Dutton publishing company who commissioned him to design the book of the same title in 1927. From 1927 to 1935, he illustrated a multitude of books, in some of which he also contributed texts as a writer. Among them, the most notable are: The Ballad of Reading Gaol (1928), The Harlot’s House and Other Poems (1929), Contempo; This American Tempo (1929), Ultimo; An Imaginative Narration of Life Under the Earth (1930), Phobia (1931), Gray’s Elegy (1931), Kubla Khan (1933), Humanities (1935). His illustrations, mainly in black and white, were influenced by the aesthetics of the cinematic image while incorporating elements of cubism, art deco, constructivism and geometric abstraction. His work’s themes reflected personal questions and quests regarding his ambivalence over the power of mechanization and the commercialization of modern life, and over ideas of consumer psychology.atioevision sets, the stions and quests that expressed his ambivalence over the power of mechanis fire. Since the late 1920s, Vassos minimized his involvement with books and began engaging with industrial design, gaining an important role in the development of the industry. In 1928, he designed the first Lucite pen for Waterman. In 1933, he commenced his forty-year collaboration with the RCA Corporation of America, where he worked on a number of projects such as in television sets, the first color television camera, radios and portable phonographs in order to make radio and television accessible to millions of Americans. He also designed kiosks for various international fairs in America, restaurant interiors, kitchen appliances, packagings for consumer products and the famous Perey turnstile gate that was used for the first time at the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair. In 1934, he was listed among the ten most important designers in the US by Fortune Magazine and, in 1965, he became a founding member of the Industrial Designers Society of America. He died in Norwalk in 1985. In 1995, his illustrations were presented at the exhibition The Ardent Image: Book Illustration for Adults in America, 1920 – 1942 at the Ward M. Canaday Center at the University of Toledo and, in 2016, a book about his work was published under the title John Vassos: Industrial Design for Modern Life by Danielle Shapiro from the University of Minnesota Press.