August 4, 1907|
New York, New York
|Died||August 19, 1999
Santa Fe, New Mexico
|Notable work||Harlequin eyeglass frame
George Grosz' Interregnum 1960
|Awards||American Design Award from Lord & Taylor
Academy Award, Best Documentary (Short Subject), Nomination
1961 George Grosz' Interregnum
Venice Film Festival, Golden Lion, First Prize
1961 George Grosz' Interregnum
|Patron(s)||Clare Boothe Luce|
Altina Schinasi (Sanders, Barrett, Carey) Miranda (August 4, 1907 - August 19, 1999) was an American sculptor, filmmaker, entrepreneur, window dresser, designer and inventor, best known for designing the Harlequin eyeglass frame.
Her father, Morris Schinasi, was a Sephardic Jew born in Manisa, Turkey. At the age of 15, he left Turkey for Alexandria, Egypt, where he would live until he was nearly thirty. It was then that Garaffolo, a successful Greek tobacco merchant, who informally adopted Schinasi in Alexandria determined that Schinasi should seek his fortune in America. In 1893, Morris Schinasi exhibited the cigarette made with his patented cigarette-rolling machine at the Chicago World's Fair. Schinasi then returned to New York City to found Schinasi Brothers with his brother, Solomon. Together, the Schinasis imported Turkish tobacco and produced ready-made cigarettes at their factory on 120th Street and Broadway. Morris Schinasi’s success was acknowledged by Abdul Hamid II, the last Sultan of the Ottoman Empire, who gave him the Medjidie Medal of fourth degree "for his excellent efforts in promoting this industry, which won for him His Majesty’s commendation."
Altina’s mother, Laurette Schinasi née Ben Rubi, the granddaughter of Schinasi’s business associate Joseph Ben Rubi, was a native of Salonica, then in the Ottoman Empire. Upon Morris Schinasi’s death in 1928, his widow Laurette Schinasi traveled to Manisa, Turkey to establish Moris Sinasi Çocuk Hastahanesi, or Moris Sinasi Children's Hospital in the city of her late husband’s birth. It remains in operation today.
Childhood and education
The youngest of three daughters born to Morris and Laurette Schinasi, Altina was born at the Schinasi residence at 351 Riverside Drive (West 107th Street) on Manhattan’s Upper West Side on August 4, 1907. After being tutored at home, Altina attended Horace Mann and at the age of twelve left home to board at Dana Hall School in Wellesley, Massachusetts.
Upon graduation from Dana Hall, Mrs. Schinasi took Altina and her sister to Paris. There, Altina studied painting with René Bensussan. Her love of art furthered by her time with Bensussan, Altina chose to attend art school rather than college when she returned to the states. In New York, Altina studied with Samuel Halpert at the Roerich Museum.
“I painted for the joy of it–because it’s what I love to do. For me, art is fun. I like to make things. I’ve always liked to make things. If I couldn’t draw it and paint it, then I’d make a pillow or I’d make a quilt or I’d make something. I always had to make something and I was always looking for ideas for projects. I wanted to use my art to enrich my life.”
Altina, now a divorced mother of two young sons, took a job with Peter Copeland designing windows for Fifth Avenue stores. It was in this job that she found herself working alongside Salvador Dalí, who had been commissioned to design two Bonwit Teller windows. Altina worked in the Copeland workshop to build the windows that Dalí designed.
George Grosz, a German artist that Altina had long admired, settled in New York after fleeing Hitler’s regime in 1932. Though he taught intermittently on the faculty of the Art Students League, Altina, now in her twenties and a divorced mother of two, studied with Grosz at the school that Grosz set up with painter Maurice Sterne. In Grosz’ classes, Altina again encountered Salvador Dalí who came to make use of the model.
Harlequin glasses frame
Though she would continue to register patents for inventions until late in life, her great breakthrough came early on when she created and marketed the Harlequin eyeglass frame that defined glamour in the late 1930s. A walk down the street occasioned this design breakthrough; finding herself underwhelmed by the lackluster frames in an optician’s window, Altina set out to create a frame that conveyed whimsy, mystery and romance.
“Surely, there must be some way to design eyeglasses that could be attractive! What looks good on a face? What adds to a face? What could a woman wear on her face that would be romantic?” she wondered. Altina settled on the Harlequin mask as a starting point and began to cut masks into the frames she envisioned. Once she had set up production and negotiated deals with department stores, Altina opened an office where she oversaw marketing and distribution, later expanding her operation to the West Coast upon relocating to California. In 1939, Schinasi won the Lord & Taylor Annual American Design Award for her avant-garde transformation of the eyeglass frame into a proper fashion accessory. Vogue and Life magazines credited Schinasi with revolutionizing the eyewear industry and aesthetic. It was in California that her next creative phase would begin.
In the 1940s, with hopes of spending more time on her art, Schinasi moved west to Los Angeles first expanding and finally selling her eyeglass concern. The move away from her business and New York allowed for a new level of commitment to her art. Having begun studies with Howard Warshaw at Jepson School of Art in Los Angeles. Schinasi said, “I took a room in the house as my studio and put a sign on the door: ‘Do not come in unless there’s a catastrophe. I wanted to have three hours a day just to myself without interruption, and I really did work very hard.’” Altina began to paint in earnest and her large paintings were selected for the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) juried show. In Los Angeles, Altina spent many years as a volunteer art therapist and muralist at experimental mental health center, Synanon.
George Grosz' Interregnum (1960)
It was in California that Schinasi conceptualized and produced George Grosz' Interregnum, a short documentary film that features the anti-Nazi work of the celebrated artist and Schinasi’s former teacher. With Grosz’ permission, given in a contract which Grosz wrote by hand on a napkin, Schinasi created a film of his drawings shot on sixteen-millimeter film. Grosz’ book, A Big No and a Little Yes was the source of the narrated text read by Lotte Lenya. George Grosz' Interregnum was nominated for an Academy Award and won First Prize at the Venice Film Festival. Schinasi is credited as producer under the name Altina Carey, her married name at that time.
March to Freedom
Following on the success of George Grosz' Interregnum, Altina found herself drawn to Martin Luther King, Jr.’s March to Freedom, to which to she acquired film rights. Schinasi engaged author John Oliver Killens to write the screenplay. When Killens had completed the script, Altina met with Dr. King in Atlanta to deliver the script. At Dr. King’s invitation, she visited Savior Church in Montgomery, Alabama where Dr. Martin Luther King, Sr. was the pastor and Dr. King, Jr. was the guest preacher that Sunday. From the pulpit, Dr. King, Jr. told the congregation about the script and how he looked forward to the movie. While in Alabama, Schinasi met Rosa Parks and taped an interview with Rev. Ralph Abernathy. Vittorio De Sica, the Italian director of The Bicycle Thief, expressed interest in directing the film. Due to the extremely unpopular nature of the Civil Rights Movement, Schinasi found it impossible to secure funding for the film. Even politically sympathetic potential investors would not commit to being associated with a film that would ultimately condemn the unconstitutional and immoral practice of segregation. Unfunded, the film was never made.
While looking at Cartier-Bresson’s photograph of unoccupied chairs, Schinasi was inspired to combine the function of the seat with the form of the sitter. She called these fantastic chairs and benches chairacters. Schinasi first worked the core in Styrofoam and then sculpted the form in plaster. The fiberglass casts that were the final product were made of the sculpted prototype at a studio and factory in California. Her chairacters were featured on the cover of The Los Angeles Times Magazine.
In 1973, Altina Schinasi relocated to Washington D.C. where she would live for seventeen years. While at work on the chairacters, Altina’s studio assistant left and she hired Celestino Miranda, who had recently arrived in United States, after seeking asylum from Cuba. When Altina traveled to Santa Fe for the summer, Miranda accompanied her there. A gifted artist in his own right, Celestino would prove a great collaborator and an inspiration. When they returned to Washington at the summer’s end, they had begun response that would endure until Altina’s passing. The pair married in 1981.
Schinasi continued to paint and sculpt, establishing herself in Santa Fe, New Mexico where with her fourth husband, painter Celestino Schinasi, she lived the final years of her illustrious life.
In the end, a life defined by her spectacular imagination may have been Schinasi’s greatest invention, with every achievement seemingly unrelated to the ones before.
A documentary about the life of Altina Schinasi Miranda, entitled Altina, is in production, with theatrical release anticipated in 2014.
- Schinasi, Altina. The Road I Have Travelled Santa Fe: Apodaca Hill Press 1995, p. 4
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- Schinasi, p. 177
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- "George Grosz' Interregnum". New York Times. Retrieved 2008-11-27.
- Schinasi, pp. 292-7
- Schinasi, pp. 306-310
- Schinasi, pp. 328-342
- Schinasi Miranda, Altina. The Road I Have Traveled. Santa Fe: Apodaca Hill Press, 1995
- "Altina Schinasi Miranda, 92, Designer of Harlequin Glasses". New York Times. 1999-08-21.
- "The 33rd Academy Awards (1961) Nominees and Winners". Archived from the original on 6 July 2011. Retrieved 2011-07-09.
- "Altina Trailer". Retrieved 2011-07-09.