John Vassos and the Cartoonists of Silvermine

John Vassos possessed one of the most creative and dynamic minds of any Silvermine resident. He was highly regarded as an artist, industrial designer, illustrator, inventor, interior designer, architect and social commentator. One could also add dog breeder, outdoorsman, car customizer, womanizer and spy. John was a pioneer in the field of Industrial Design along with Norman Bel Geddes, Raymond Lowey and Eliot Noyes among others. The full body of his work and experiences could be compared to Edison, Jefferson, and Franklin without embarrassment.

John was born on October 23, 1898 in Romania as John Plato Vassacopolous to a Greek father and a Turkish/Greek mother. He and his family moved to Constantinople, where his father was a director of a private school and a newspaper publisher. As a teenager, he wrote and drew political cartoons under the pen name “The Wasp”. One particular cartoon presented a critical view of the Turkish senate and caused the authorities to force him to leave Constantinople. At age 16 he fled on a British ship bound for Palestine. His travels would take him from the Middle East to India, China and eventually to Australia.

John returned to Europe on a troop ship from Australia bringing soldiers for the British efforts in WWI. While working as a cabin steward on a Belgian steamer, the ship was sunk in the North Sea and John was rescued by the US Navy. He arrived in London in 1915 with no but John was able to obtain transit papers and traveled to Boston where his older brother Alex lived. He worked as a sign painter and studied at the Fenway Art School under John Singer Sergeant, among others. He assisted on stage designs for the Boston Opera Company and designed promotional material for Columbia Records. Wanderlust prevailed and John traveled down the east coast and through the south, residing in Baltimore for a period of time before moving to New York. In New York City, John studied at the Art Students League with George Bridgman and Eric Sloan, while supporting himself doing window design and assisting with stage designs for the Ziegfeld Follies. He lived the “Bohemian” lifestyle in Greenwich Village and while attending a party at The Chelsea Hotel where he met his future wife, Ruth Carrier, a fashion and real estate writer.

In 1924, John became a US citizen, changed his last name to Vassos and married Ruth. With the “Roaring 20’s” in full swing, John and Ruth are fully involved in New York nightlife. They became part of a growing social circle of artists, actors, novelists, poets and critics. After opening his own design studio, John was asked to design a face lotion bottle that proved to have a dual purpose. Once the lotion was removed, the bottle could be used as a small flask. Sales of the hand lotion went up 700%.

The late 1920’s proved to be a creative period for John and Ruth Vassos. John produced a series of “conceptions” for a production of Oscar Wilde’s Salomé to which Ruth wrote the introduction. John illustrated several more books, and in 1929 John and Ruth produced their first book “Contempo: The American Tempo”, followed by four more books in the next five years. Ruth would later be considered the first American female science fiction writer.

At the height of the Art Deco movement, John was approached by the photographer Margaret Bourke-White to design her studio in the Chrysler Building. He utilized materials from many of her clients; Pittsburgh Plate Glass, Armstrong Cork, Alcoa Aluminum and DuPont. He would go on to design the interior of her apartment in Tudor City. John and Margaret would remain close personal friends until her death in 1971.

In 1932, John began an association with RCA that would last almost forty years. His design work would come to include radio and television cabinets, cameras, control rooms, exhibits and theaters. When television was presented at the 1939 World’s Fair, it was wrapped in a clear plexiglass enclosure designed by John Vassos. Among his many sketches was found a design for a flat screen television that was rejected by RCA in 1957 as being too difficult to develop. John also produced designs for Hohner including accordions, harmonicas and an electric piano. Other product design he produced ranged from personal and home products to industrial and medical equipment. These included a paring knife, bottle opener, bicycles, turnstiles, x-ray machines, soda dispensers, guns, and dozens of others.

John and Ruth first visited Silvermine in the early 1930’s at the insistence of Dorothy Bayard. Ruth felt it would be beneficial to have a home in the country. They rented a house for several years on New Canaan Road in Wilton until they purchased “The Little Orchard” from their friend Richardson Wright. Over the years several additions and renovations were carried out, including a studio for John.

With a group of artists and writers, John helps to establish the Silvermine Guild of Artists and serves as president in 1936, 1940-47 and 1949-55. He designed the five-branch tree logo (painting, sculpture, drama, music and dance) for the Guild along with the Gifford Hall Complex.

In 1939, John, Ruth and other members of the Guild presented The Silvermine Festival. Over four days and evenings, 25,000 peoples attend concerts that featured chamber groups, stringed quartets, a 350 voice choral group and the New York Philharmonic with Eugene Ormandy
conducting. The evening performances were broadcast over the CBS radio network. John designed the stage that appeared to float over the surface of Guthrie’s Pond and the trees were lit to provide a magical background.

John enlisted in the US Army Air Corp in 1942 and was commissioned a lieutenant. He was stationed in Alabama for two years and then reassigned to Washington, D.C. to serve with the OSS. He designed camouflage along with producing a series of war posters and pamphlets encouraging vigilance on the home front and “open eyes and tight lips”. His most important assignment was to rewrite the OSS top-secret training manual that helped to shorten training four to two months. John then produced a second training manual for the underground Greek gorilla forces and parachuted behind Nazi lines to train and act as the US liaison with the gorillas. He left the military in 1945 with the rank of colonel, a title that he continued to use for the next ten years.

After the war, John returned home to Silvermine and continued as president of the Silvermine Guild, but constantly struggled with lawyer and artist Mortimer Hayes over leadership and policy. He also becomes involved with Greek war relief efforts through The American Relief for Greek Democracy (ARGD), whose honorary chairperson was Eleanor Roosevelt. The organization was in operation when he joined, but he was disappointed to find that none of the paid employees were Greek. Roosevelt resigned, stating that she believed that the organization to be communist front. John dissolved the ARGD and turned over all the clothing and funds to the well established Greek War Relief and CARE. He cooperated with the FBI was not questioned or charged during the McCarthy hearings. During the decade following the war, John Vassos would become one of the most honored Greek Americans, and develop close friendships with other well-known Greeks such as Aristotle Onassis.

Besides his continued work for RCA and other companies, John designed murals for theatres and studios including the Riviera, Syosset and Rivoli theatres in New York, the Egyptian Theatre in Los Angles, the Condado Beach Hotel in Puerto Rico, the WCAU studio in Philadelphia and the Radio and TV Center in Washington, DC. John also designed trade and exhibition pavilions in New York, India and Pakistan.

Ruth died in 1965, accepting that John, while a fixture in the world of art and design, also continued a series of relationships with mistresses for many years. John bought a small house in Miami Beach and while spending time in Florida explored the possibility of communication with dolphins. He also designed a home in Florida for his niece Ellie.

John was a founding member and first president of the American Society of Industrial Designers; along with visiting professorships at Norwalk Community College, Columbia University and Pratt Institute. He continued his involvement with Hellenic studies and charities.

In 1976 John, as President Norwalk Historical Society, produced a Bicentennial commemorative book on the history of Norwalk.

The last retrospective of his work was held at the Silvermine Guild in February 1977. The show was wildly hailed as a tribute to the art and design of a master whose legacy remains the hundreds of design projects, the illustrations, and books, along with his social and charitable endeavors.

In poor health and nearly blind, John remained a feisty old man until the end. He died at home on December 6, 1985, survived by his older brother Alexander Vasso, nephew Paul Johnes and niece Ellie Brohl. The funeral arrangements were handled by Silvermine friends Ben French and Marthe Kruger, with the ashes scattered to the wind.