John Vassos (1898–1985) was born as John Vassacopoulos, the son of ethnic Greeks living in Constantinople, then the capitol of the Ottoman Empire. Vassos had always enjoyed drawing and by the age of twelve was motivated by “liberal tendencies.” For a number of years, he drew political cartoons for a Greek newspaper. When he was sixteen, he poked fun at the Turkish senate in one of his cartoons, and this was considered a criminal act. Before he could be arrested, he 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 worked on troop ships, traveling as far as eastern Asia. He also served on coal ships and minesweepers in the North Sea, and one of the vessels on which he served did sink. In 1918, he arrived in Boston harbor aboard a ship carrying scrap iron.
In Boston, Vassos worked as a window washer and then as a sign painter. His vivid graphic style attracted attention and increased sales, and this encouraged him to pursue art as a career. He attended night classes at the Fenway Art School, where he studied under John Singer Sargent. He also worked as an assistant to the stage designer for the Ziegfeld Follies.
Vassos provided the following self-description for the E. P. 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....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.”
In New York, he continued working in theater, designing sets for the Billy Rose shows. He also painted murals for some of the “cinema palaces” in Manhattan such as the Rialto and Rivoli, and dressed department store windows at Macy’s and Saks Fifth Avenue. His wife, Ruth (née Carriere), whom he met in 1924, was a fashion adviser to Saks. They worked as a team on some of his most famous original books. In 1926, he illustrated a souvenir program for a Greek society’s production of Oscar Wilde’s Salome. This illustration caught the eye of John Macrae Jr. of E. P. Dutton, who commissioned illustrations from Vassos for an edition of Salome, which was an instant success.
Parallel to his graphic and theater work, Vassos worked as an industrial designer for RCA. Among his notable products were juke boxes, turnstiles, television cameras, telephones, and fountain pens. His design for an Armand Products bottle for face lotion increased sales by four hundred percent; it was among the first bottles to have a screw top (a useful invention created during the Prohibition era).
When World War II began, Vassos enlisted at the rank of captain and worked for the Office of Strategic Services, an intelligence agency. Among other tasks, he produced films and publications, including a pamphlet, Booby the Bear, which dealt with the topic of camouflage. Although he went on to write three more books and to illustrate one, his work had changed. Gone were the striking graphics that had made him famous; instead, there were a couple of nondescript books about his dogs and some illustrations for a book of translated Greek proverbs. During the ten years of his publishing career, he had produced some magnificent works that placed him on a level with Rockwell Kent, Lynd Ward, Aaron Douglas, and Clare Leighton.
Vassos was president of the Silvermine Guild of Artists in New Canaan, Connecticut, and a founding member and first president of the American Design Institute, which became the Industrial Designers Society of America (IDSA). [View Vassos Gallery]