Monday, November 22, 2010

Tom Lamb and John Vassos

I've never associated storybook illustration with industrial design, but the 20th century had two individuals who were great successes in both fields.

Tom Lamb (1896-1988) was a children's book illustrator who illustrated for books, Good Housekeeping and did a line of children's illustrations called Kiddyland that was put on textiles.  And he was also an industrial designer who specialized in handles.  Yes, handles -- he was very into making handles functional, and worked on everything from luggage to cutlery.  But my favorite Tom Lamb creation is the whimsical book "Bing-O" that was published by Volland.  Bing-O was a swastika-wearing monkey who goes on a journey of discovery and returns home a hero.  

Bing-O, wearing his swastika
 "Bing-O" was printed prior to the rise of the Nazi empire, although Hitler had already co-opted the ancient and sacred symbol of the swastika.  But I like to think that Lamb, being a brilliant and erudite man, somehow ran across a story of the monkey-headed Hindu god Hanuman and it provoked an idea for a book.  In India, the swastika is an auspicious symbol of good fortune that represents the wheel of life.


 Yeah, I know it's a stretch, but I like it as a theory.

The other industrial designer/illustrator was a genius.  Not that Tom Lamb wasn't extraordinary, but he wasn't John Vassos (1898-1985.)   Vassos designed everything from subway turnstiles to accordions, cutlery, microscopes and probably most noteworthy, TV/radio/record player cabinetry.  His work was very art deco
in nature -- spare, graphic and beautiful. 

Vassos-designed radio

Vassos most certainly didn't do graphic arts for children's books -- he did illustrations for his own books like "Contempo" and "Phobia" that were dark and a bit chilling, yet visually stunning.  Some of his most famous work is for Oscar Wilde works like "Harlot's House," "The Ballad of Reading Gaol, " and "Salome."  His work from "Salome" is perhaps his best-known.  Aubrey Beardsely did some pretty kick-ass illustrators for that play, but I honestly like what Vassos did better. 

Vassos illustration for Oscar Wilde's "Salome"

Perhaps Lamb and Vassos are proof that over-specializing is overrated.

1 comment:

  1. Your theory regarding Bing-O makes sense. The swastika as an ancient symbol of life revolves clockwise. In the form used by the Nazis, it revolves counter-clockwise. Today, few people associate the swastika, regardless of its rotation, with anything but the death and destruction wreaked by Germany under Nazi rule.

    I'm a big fan of Vassos, especially the illustrations in Contempo. Sadly, the social and political ills he portrayed then are still with us today.