Alfonso Iannelli: Modern by Design
By David Jameson
In 1914 Frank Lloyd Wright asked an unknown twenty-six-year-old Italian-American immigrant to sculpt the strikingly geometric figures for his landmark Chicago masterpiece, Midway Gardens. Decades later, when New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art installed one of Midway Garden's female "Sprite" sculptures, they listed Wright as its only artist. In all those years that followed he original project, Wright never publicly referred to the actual sculptor responsible for those remarkable figures, perhaps preferring to keep the secret of their success away from the world. That secret was Alfonso Iannelli.
From his groundbreaking modernist posters designed for Los Angeles' Orpheum Theater to his zodiac figures at the twelve corners of Chicago's Adler Planetarium to his iconic industrial designs that appeared in households across America, Iannelli's diverse work placed him firmly on a national level in the design world. Having created the Iannelli Studios in suburban Park Ridge, Illinois, shortly after the turn of the last century, Alfonso Iannelli continued to create within and around a Modernism environment for nearly six decades. And he seemed to have known everybody who was anybody in the design world at the time, becoming friends with Mies van der Rohe, talking shop with Wassily Kandinsky and, for what seemed like decades, feuding with Frank Lloyd Wright. As a metaphor for America's cult of celebrity, he had become enormously famous. Then he was forgotten.
Author David Jameson has painstakingly collected a nearly complete archive of job files, correspondence and historical writings that Iannelli himself kept for sixty years. Exhaustively researched and eautifully illustrated with over 420 full-color illustrations and photographs, Alfonso Iannelli: Modern by Design is the first comprehensive monograph on a Modernist pioneer whose important body of work has been historically overshadowed and is now at last becoming fully appreciated.
Notes on the writing of the book:
Alfonso Iannelli: Modern by Design started out in 2002 as just a syllabus on the artist for my gallery buyers who would ask "Who was Iannelli?" So first I had to jot down an outline of his greatest accomplishments that would, of course, start out with Midway Gardens by Frank Lloyd Wright.
They'd heard of the Sprites (hasn't every architectural maven?) but they often thought Wright, himself, had designed them. Even the "official" Wright keepers of the flame in Oak Park or the Taliesins never alluded to the fact that Wright didn't actually design them alone but hired a sculptor who did. Their own gift shops still market small models of one of them for bookshelves and as garden ornaments everywhere. They still are thought by salespersons to have been simply Wright designs that "shook out of his sleeve" but they'd also never heard of Iannelli.
Wright would actually be appalled at the neckties and bracelet charms those salespeople claim are his designs but at least those gift shops make his name known by the tourist buyers.
I read every letter Iannelli and Wright exchanged after Iannelli discovered in May of 1915 that the leading magazine of design, the "International Studio" hadn't even credited the Sprites to him but reduced his work as just an "executer" of Wright's own designs. His name being misspelled at that! In fact, Wright didn't seem to understand the collaborative design process that they had just experienced in Midway Gardens. Iannelli was incensed, of course, and they never worked together again.
So I began digging into the story and realized that Wright probably felt he created his own universe in his method and Iannelli felt good design was found only by the collaborative artistic process. In truth, they would never overlap in their design processes at all.
Next on the Iannelli outline was the great Orpheum posters few had seen. Six of the designs were reproduced in 1969 in good silkscreen copies as a limited edition fundraiser so some people were aware of those. Iannelli never wanted his Orpheum posters reproduced when he did them in 1912-1915 so the originals had rarely been seen again until they started to be sold in the early 1980s.
The irony is that if they'd been reproduced as actual "posters" for the traveling vaudeville acts instead of remaining one-of-a-kind tempera "showcards" for exclusive use in the Orpheum's lobby, they would have been discovered more quickly in the poster books of the 1960s.
My "Iannelli Studios" records mostly began from 1920 onward so the original office records of the Orpheum period weren't available. The story I found had to be deduced from Iannelli's own re-telling of the events from essays he wrote later and a typed document in the files I owned that listed some of the posters with "circa" dates only that had obviously been prepared later (probably by Ruth Blackwell).
Iannelli worked as an "applied" artist of many media and not as a "fine" artist in one or two. The collaborative nature with his fellow artists and the clients in that method differed greatly from the non-collaborative work of fine artists whose clients would never have dreamed of telling them how to design a painting or sculpture. And architects had to have a dose of that Wrightian ego to design a building their way.
The story of Iannelli was also complicated by the fact that he just couldn't be pinned down to an easily digestible artistic trajectory. He and the "Iannelli Studios" just did too much to explain in a simple arc. I tell people that it was like lifting a Renaissance artists' studio from the 15th Century and plunking it down in the 20th.
Instead of Renaissance era altarpieces and jewelry boxes, the Studios specialized in movie theaters and kitchen appliances. But they were both commercially driven.
STUDYING THE ARCHIVE
I got serious reading every document filed away in crumbling folders in the Iannelli Studios file cabinets I owned. Off and on, it took me seven years (I had to run the art gallery every day, remember).
It occurred to me early on that the note taking and later writing for the syllabus was too cumbersome for me. So I decided the writing of the story had to combine both operations. I figured that the best story-telling method was one I'd never used: Writing the story as if I was standing over the shoulder of the smartest person I knew who was going over those same files and commenting on what was important to the Iannelli story.
That syllabus was getting very thick, too thick for a gallery syllabus describing one artist. I had to get even more serious and turn it into a proper book. So, in late 2002, the Alfonso Iannelli story started becoming an image laden retelling of the files that hurried along the details of one of the most interesting modernist designers of the 20th Century.
A PROPER BOOK
I knew it had to be roughly chronological but each important project overlapped and wound through others. I skipped around a bit. In 2004, the Chicago Art Deco Society magazine asked me to write about Iannelli's 1933 World's Fair jobs and that, ultimately, became a version of the "A Century of Progress" chapter.
And in 2005, Kalamazoo, Michigan became alarmed that their 1937 "Fountain of the Pioneers" sculpture by Iannelli was threatened by the torches and pitchforks crowd of "wounded" groups wanting the fountain torn down. I studied the files to figure out what exactly was so insulting to the crowd. I then wrote an extensive "letter to the editor" for the local Gazette. They printed it on their front page and that became the basis of the Kalamazoo fountain chapter.
But there was still a lot of research left to do as this was going to be the first real book of Iannelli's story to hit the shelves. Most importantly, the Orpheum posters had to be dated more exactly than the files suggested in "circa" dates remembered later.
Enter my friend, Tim Samuelson. Not only was he the "Cultural Historian for the City of Chicago" but he was an Iannelli fan, himself. He had been acquiring Margaret Iannelli's artwork and files for his lectures about her but he knew more than anyone else but me the story of Iannelli himself. He could also research through the city's subscription from a search engine not available to any "Google" users.
Through it, he found the Los Angeles Times morgue to search the dates of the vaudeville acts playing the Orpheum at the time of the posters. That's the most exact timing we have of the posters whose digital images I already owned.
A curious discovery was made then: The more "geometric" posters that Iannelli said were his "metamorphosis" and many admire were only made for acts playing the Orpheum after the Midway Gardens project. Though those dated before were quite good, themselves, they weren't "modern breakthroughs" in American illustration that led to his working for Wright in Chicago in 1914 as had been thought. While the later typed sheets about the Orpheum posters in the Studios' files indicated "circa" dates only, the actual L.A. Times Orpheum schedule means that working for Frank Lloyd Wright and sculpting the Midway Gardens "Sprites" preceded the more famous posters and influenced their more geometric style.
What, then, caused Wright (and his young son, John) to send for Iannelli?
One day in 2009 or so, Tim came into my gallery with a big box of papers on his shoulder. He dropped it down and said, "Keep it as long as you want." Inside were early letters, ledgers, daybooks and albums of clippings that filled in the blanks in what I already knew from my collection.
I didn't exactly rewrite everything but those lost files added dates, names and projects that could be inserted into the previously written accounts. However, reading everything took me another couple of years to perfect the story.
A study of those earliest letters and contracts shows that Iannelli and James F. Rudy set up the business in Los Angeles in August of 1912. He had met Margaret Spaulding later and in 1913, she joined the Studios, herself, as either an employee or as a freelance designer. That's when his sculpture changed. Since John Lloyd Wright asked for his own plaster copy of a fountain figure in late 1913, it's quite probable that her collaboration on a specific sculptural work called "Fountain Girl" influenced Wright to hire Iannelli for the Midway Gardens job in Chicago. It wasn't the modernism of the posters at all but instead his actual sculptures!
Eric O'Malley was experienced in his "Prairie Design Group" in designing art books and also showed a keen interest in Iannelli's story. And his experience working with Top-Five-Books meant that he could plug me into the right group of people to produce a first rate book. Also, he could create any custom lettering needed for each chapter. So he took the lead in the design of the look, itself.
After hiring him to design the thing and his partner, Jen Barrell, to act as the copy editor, the first thing I told him was that this was to be a deluxe coffee table book with "meat." I told Jen that the tone of the writing was to be "conversational." Since it was going to be the first real book on an important modernist, it was important that it be very accurate and list the most critical design jobs and partners he had in a career that was a forgotten part of the 20th Century design story.
Jen was the partner of Alex Lubertozzi. Together they owned the publishing company, Top-Five-Books. Everything was falling into place for the book to look as lavish as this one turned out to be.
The result is an art book that probably hasn't been published like this for decades.
As the waiter says after he puts your plate in front of you: "Enjoy."
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