Vassos was born in Romania to Greek parents, and moved when young to Istanbul, Turkey, where he drew political cartoons for his father's newspaper. After serving in the British Naval Support Systems during World War I, he emigrated to Boston in 1919 where he attended the Fenway Art School at night. In 1924 he moved to New York, where he opened his own studio creating window displays, murals, and advertisements. He also attended the Art Students League of New York, studying under George Bridgman, John Sloan, and others.
In 1924, Vassos created his first industrial design, a lotion bottle popular as a hip flask during Prohibition. In 1933 he designed the widely popular Perey turnstile still used in many subway stations. Other notable designs included a streamlined paring knife, Hohner accordions, computers, an electron microscope, corporate logos, and shotguns. Between 1927-1935, Vassos also illustrated nine books, including literary works by Oscar Wilde and graphic-oriented books cowritten with his wife.
Vassos designed the cabinets of the RCA Corporation's first commercially available television sets. For the 1939 World's Fair he created a novel TV cabinet in transparent Lucite plastic, as well as futuristic entertainment systems such as a radio, television, and record player housed within a single cabinet. His industrial design contributions at RCA spanned over 40 years and included the design for RCA's first color television camera.
In addition to his design work, Vassos chaired the boards of the American Society of Industrial Designers and the Industrial Designers Institute. His papers are collected at Syracuse University and at the Archives of American Art in Washington DC. The first autobiography of John Vassos by Danielle Shapiro, John Vassos: Industrial Design for Modern Life, will be published in the Spring 2016 by the University of Minnesota Press.
- John Vassos New York Times obituary, published Dec. 10, 1985
- John Vassos Papers: Syracuse University
- John Vassos papers, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution
- "Television in the World of Tomorrow," by Iain Baird, ECHOES, Winter, 1997
- Illustrators: John Vassos, JVJ Publishing
- Danielle (Schwartz) Shapiro, "Modernism for the Masses: The Industrial Design of John Vassos," Archives of American Art Journal, Volume 46, 1-2], pp. 4-21. http://www.jstor.org/stable/25435119
- John Vassos: Industrial Design for Modern Life, Spring 2016, University of Minnesota Press, Danielle Shapiro.
- Corrado Farina (IT), Psicoanalisi nero su bianco. John Vassos e le fobie dell'umanità, "Charta", Padova, n. 95, 2008, pp. 50–54.