Expanding Our Design Sensibilities

Write a book on Frank Lloyd Wright, and you’re sure to gain attention.

Write a book on one of Wright’s talented protégées, one of whom he just may have shafted, and you’ll gain not only attention, but new readers.

And new respect for a talented 20th century designer, not to mention its author.

When I picked up author David Jameson’s hefty hardback Alfonso Iannelli: Modern By Design, I didn’t know what to expect, but I was attracted to the life-size photograph of one of the famous “Sprite” sculptures which had adorned Wright’s since-destroyed 1914 Chicago masterpiece — the Midway Gardens.

The sculptures, as it turns out, although most often credited to Frank Lloyd Wright himself — and rarely, if ever, denied by the self-absorbed architect — were the work of a 26-year-old Italian-American immigrant by the name of Alfonso Iannelli (1888-1965).

Iannelli had trained under the equally as self-absorbed Gutzon Borglum, famous for the presidents carved into Mount Rushmore, before breaking out on his own, supporting himself by designing vaudeville posters for the Orpheum theatres.

But it was his modernist sculptures he designed for a number of midwestern architects for which he will best be remembered.

As Jameson points out, “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 Kandisky, and, for what seemed like decades, feuding with Frank Lloyd Wright. Louis Sullivan, Erich Mendelsohn, Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, and Bruce Goff were all more than casual players in his life.”

Iannelli’s life makes fascinating reading, propelled along by captivating photographs of the designer at various stages in his life, all reproduced on substantial glossy paper by the publisher, Top Five Books, and formatted to make it easy for any reader to remain engrossed in the story.

Jameson’s task was made both easier and more difficult by the fact that Iannelli had for sixty years saved nearly every scrap of paper which came across his desk, from “railroad tickets, fuel oil receipts, insurance claims, and doodles made at his kitchen table” to undated autobiographical essays, letters, file folders, and notebooks. Jameson proved every bit as capable of conquering the challenge, making order out of chaos, starting in 1998 and remaining intensely focused on this study and biography until its publication in 2013.

Any fine book is always dependent on three categories of individuals: a subject worthy of study, an author capable of translating a life into words in a meaningful, interpretive, and engrossing manner, and a publisher willing to invest in the mechanics — design, paper, and binding — that deliver the package to the reader.

In this rare instance, the three have come together to provide us with a fascinating study into the life and work of an important 20th century designer who might otherwise have soon been forgotten.

Make sure it’s on your holiday reading (and gift) list!

– Bruce Johnson

Alfonso Iannelli: Modern By Design by David Jameson. Published by Top Five Books, Oak Park, Illinois, 2013. 364 pages, hardback, full color.

For more information, be sure to go to http://www.top-five-books.com.