Vassos was born October 23, 1898 as John Vassacopoulos the son of ethnic
Greeks living in Constantinople, the then capitol of the Ottoman Empire.
His father was principal of a private school and editor of one of the local
Greek newspapers. In Constantinople, Vassos received his education at the
Hatzichristou Gymnasium and at Robert College, an American-run private
academy which can claim as its graduates some of the finest minds in Turkey.(1)
Vassos had always enjoyed drawing and by the age of 12 was motivated by "liberal tendencies." For a number of years he drew political cartoons for a different Greek newspaper than the one his father edited. When he was 16 he poked fun at the Turkish senate in one of his cartoons, earning a price on his head. Before he could be arrested he had hired on as a deckhand aboard a British merchant ship. World War I had just begun to erupt across Europe and during the war Vassos found himself working on troop ships traveling as far as eastern Asia to bring men to Europe. In addition to serving on coalers, and minesweepers in the North Sea, he managed to get sunk once and finally arrived in Boston harbor aboard a ship carrying scrap iron in 1919.
In Boston he worked hard, initially as a window washer and then as a
sign painter. His vivid graphic style attracted attention and increased
sales, raising his self confidence and the feeling that he might be able
to make it as an artist. During this time he started attending night classes
at the Fenway Art School, where he studied under John Singer Sargent. Vassos
also began working as an assistant to the stage designer for the Ziegfeld
Follies, something he would continue when he arrived in New York.(2)
To quote Vassos from his "self description" for the EP Dutton Publicity Department, "Came to New York, started doing pictures for motion picture houses, then did show cards. These were seen by advertising people at Best's and Saks Fifth Ave. Soon he was doing magazine – Vogue, Harper's Bazaar, etc. and ads for the 5th Avenue stores. Did a very outstanding series of perfume advertisements for Bonwit Teller. Had an exhibit at the Art Center of his advertisements including an outstanding series for Cammeyer Shoes. Conceded that he started a new school in black and white." These advertisements show that his style of black and white gouache in fine gradation with very sharp, well-defined edges was already well-developed and mature.
In New York he continued working in theater and designed sets for the Billy Rose shows (the artwork for some of which can be found in Vassos last, retrospective work of Contempo, Phobia, and other Graphic Interpretations) as well as painting murals for some of the "cinema palaces" in Manhattan including the Rialto and Rivoli, and dressing department store windows at Macy's and Saks. His wife Ruth, née. Carriere, whom he met in 1924, was a fashion adviser to Saks. They worked together as a team on some of his most famous original books. In 1926 he illustrated a souvenir program for a Greek society's presentation of Wilde's Salome. This illustration caught the eye of John Macrae, Jr. of E.P. Dutton, who commissioned Vassos's first published work of Salome which was an instant success.
Vassos was also involved in the creation of the Silvermine Guild of Artists in New Canaan, Connecticut. This artists' guild, for which Vassos also designed the logo, included the art forms of painting, sculpture, drama, music, and dance. Parallel to his graphic and theater work, Vassos also worked as a designer with his major claim to fame coming from his industrial design for RCA. Among his products were juke boxes, turnstiles, television cameras, telephones, and fountain pens. He also designed a face lotion bottle for Armand Products whose design increased sales by 400%; it had a screw top (among the first) and it was during Prohibition.
When World War II began, Vassos enlisted at the rank of Captain, working with the intelligence service. Among other things, he produced films and publications, one of which dealt with the topic of camouflage. It was known as Booby the Bear. The beginning of the war could be seen as marking the end of Vassos' publishing career. Although he went on to write three more books and illustrat one, his work had changed. Gone were the striking graphics which made him famous, replaced instead with a book about his dogs, a children's book about two of the dogs, and some illustrations for a book of translated Greek proverbs. In the short ten years of his publishing career he had produced some magnificent works which rank among the finest of the genre ever produced, in the company of Rockwell Kent, Lynd Ward, Aaron Douglas, and Clare Leighton. In 1995 Vassos' work was featured among those previously mentioned in the exhibition, The Ardent Image: Book Illustration for Adults in America, 1920 – 1942, at the Ward M. Canaday Center of the University of Toledo. The exhibition was curated by Judith M. Friebert.
New in 2016, Danielle Shapiro's John Vassos: Industrial Design for Modern Life, published by the University of Minnesota Press. This is the first biography of a renowned industrial designer and illustrator who shaped the look of modern technology and Radio Corporation of America’s (RCA) key consultant designer through the rise of radio and television and into the computer era. Replete with rich behind-the-product stories of America’s design culture in the 1930s through the 1950s, this volume also chronicles the emergence of what was to become the nation’s largest media company.
2. From P.K. Thomajan's foreword to John Vassos' work Contempo, Phobia, and other Graphic Interpretations, New York: Dover Publications, Inc, 1976. pp. vii - xi.