"Alfonso Iannelli: Modern By Design" Book Review
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Architect, scholar, and author Randolph C. Henning recently read and offered a review of the new book, Alfonso Iannelli: Modern By Design, written by David Jameson (with foreward by Tim Samuelson) and published by Top Five Books, 2013. Read the reveiw after the jump... The name Alfonso Iannelli (1888-1965) is familiar to some but, most likely, less familiar to most. Thanks to the new book, Alfonso Iannelli: Modern By Design, it will become a much...
Architect, scholar, and author Randolph C. Henning recently read and offered a review of the new book, Alfonso Iannelli: Modern By Design, written by David Jameson (with foreward by Tim Samuelson) and published by Top Five Books, 2013. Read the reveiw after the jump...
The name Alfonso Iannelli (1888-1965) is familiar to some but, most likely, less familiar to most. Thanks to the new book, Alfonso Iannelli: Modern By Design, it will become a much more familiar name deservedly connected to twentieth century American modern design. The book’s author (and custodian of Iannelli’s office archive), David Jameson, passionately presents the full breadth of Iannelli’s creative life work in the large book’s almost 400 pages accompanied by more than 470 illustrations. It soon becomes obvious to the reader that this overlooked and unappreciated modernist designer deserved much more credit than being just a footnote in the American architect Frank Lloyd Wright’s Midway Garden masterwork. Tim Samuelson, in his personable Foreward, succinctly offers, “From posters to toasters to entire buildings, Alfonso Iannelli was fearless in applying Modernism to everything - to bring the message of modernism to everybody.” Iannelli possessed multiple skill sets in his life long journey of creative survival, as an artist, illustrator, decorator, sculptor, and designer (even dabbling in architecture) in the commercial and industrial applied arts — truly a modern day artisan.
The tome’s triumph lies in the author’s laudable ability to present the story of Iannelli’s creative life work through its well written and easily read text coupled with abundant firsthand accounts written by Iannelli himself, plus the copious, accompanying images expertly arranged by the book’s ably talented designer Eric O’Malley. The success of the written story and pictures is the direct and result of the fairly miraculous existence of Iannelli’s vast office archive. The survival of that archive is even given attention by Jameson in his Introduction and Epilogue, becoming an interesting back story in the book, albeit secondary to the subject. He recognizes that the archive is the star of Iannelli’s legacy; without the archive Iannelli’s story would have remained unremarkable and little known (if not forgotten), as in the indignity of Iannelli’s undistinguished passing in 1965. Iannelli’s life journey presented in the book is organized chronologically with his primary life events captured under seventeen chapter headings. The appendix and back matter material Jameson provides includes a well organized and comprehensive Chronology containing biographical milestones, works and associations by Iannelli, followed by a Bibliography (albeit abbreviated), an adequate Index and the necessary Image Credits.
Iannelli’s seventy-seven year life story begins in Italy but soon moves through New York City, Cincinnati (albeit very briefly) and Los Angeles, before he settles in 1915 for his remaining fifty years in Chicago and Park Ridge, Illinois. He collaborated with known artists and architects, like Gutzon Borglum, Frank Lloyd Wright and Bruce Goff, among others, as well as numerous lesser known architects, including Harrison Albright, Wright’s son’s Lloyd and John, Barry Bryne, Irving Gill, and Purcell & Elmslie. He designed for churches, theaters, schools, courthouses, public buildings and single family residences and for magazines like Colliers, Harpers Weekly and Vogue. And he worked in the industrial realm producing modern household products, including mechanical pencils, radios, washers, and Sunbeam’s classic “Coffeemaster” (Tim Samuelson’s childhood introduction to modern design and Iannelli).
Of particular note and life changing for Iannelli were the notable posters (“showcards”) he designed for the Orpheum Theater in Los Angeles between 1912 and 1915. Jameson estimates that there were approximately 100 posters created. Incredibly, the book includes images of seventy of them; scarce few originals exist. These, according to Jameson, “ ... placed him squarely at the vanguard of American Modernism when the 1913 New York Armory show officially gave birth to the concept of “Modern Art” in America.” The posters also brought him to the attention of the forty-seven year old architect Frank Lloyd Wright (thanks to Wright’s sons’ Lloyd and John who knew Iannelli and of his posters while living in Los Angeles) and the opportunity to collaborate with Wright on Midway Gardens in Chicago. The five month collective effort between architect and artist is provided due attention in the chapter’s thirty-two pages, as they work closely and collectively in a true design partnership to create “ . . architectonically expressed sculptural figures, “conventionalizing of the flesh,” as the roof-line finials and decorative elements.” Jameson continues, “This would be a perfect fit for the rising young illustrator to translate his abstracted graphics into and architectural expression,” and, from Iannelli’s own notes from 1914, “For a long time I longed to see the logical working out of a piece of sculpture connected with a building - the essential form of a building, which is geometric, followed throughout the sculpture, thereby making a unit of the whole thing.” Inevitably they each came away with differing memories regarding authorship and, not surprisingly, drama ensued. Wright thought he was the designer and Iannelli as the one “executing the design.” Iannelli saw it differently. In 1915, Iannelli begins his initial salvo with, “My suggestion would be, that you consider the truth in this matter and that I be given the credit due me as such only.” Wright responded, “... if I understand the nature of creative impulses, the works were certainly “designed” by me - they were more than executed by you.” Over the remaining fifty years of his life Iannelli at times obsessed about setting the record straight. But, as Jameson closes this pivotal chapter, “Frank Lloyd Wright was America’s Leonardo da Vinci. That he saw Iannelli as a suitable appendage to his genius and had even sought his collaboration again after their personal blowup was, for Iannelli, total artistic vindication.”
There is very little to constructively criticize of this book. The lack of footnotes is explained away by the author. As this reviewer is partial to the back stories and information contained in footnotes, this could have been personally difficult to get over. But I found myself “over it,” and very quickly. The book is well worth the price ($80). And, like John Vinci and Ward Miller’s recently published singularly momentous tome, The Complete Architecture of Adler and Sullivan (2010 and already out of print), I predict Alfonso Iannelli: Modern By Design will likewise, and soon, become a sought after resource and collector’s item when the book sells out.
Images via PrairieMod/Text copyright 2013 Randolph C. Henning