Tim Samuelson, Chicago Cultural Historian and curator, finds it humorous, yet very accurate, how his latest exhibit at Chicago Cultural Center is billed with the tag: "Singer David Bowie's 'Modern Love' might make an appropriate theme song for Alfonso and Margaret Iannelli, for it was their love of modernism that brought the two uniquely different artists together."
Continuing now through Aug. 17 in the Chicago Rooms at the Chicago Cultural Center at 78 E. Washington, Samuelson's new exhibit "Modernism's Messengers: The Art of Alfonso and Margaret Iannelli," not only represents an intricate and artistic love story with a lasting impression on modern art design, but also includes some familiar but rarely realized artistic treasures from Northwest Indiana, plucked from the region, and included in the display.
"In this show, it's easy to discover not only the love this husband and wife artistic team both had for modernism, but also the love that they had for each other," Samuleson said.
He said Alfonso was born in Italy and came to the United States embracing all things American. In contrast, his wife Margaret was from an old American family which predated the Revolutionary War, but she looked outside the country to the art of Japan and European modernists for inspiration.
"Margaret was an artist in her own right, a child prodigy highlighted in 'The Los Angeles Times' at the age of 12," Samuelson said.
"She collaborated with her husband and despite their differences, their work inspired each other and the collaboration was such that one might not know where Margaret's work ended and Alfonso's began."
Alfonso's acclaim came after he arrived in Chicago in 1914 to work with Frank Lloyd Wright on the infamous Midway Gardens project, which critics later dubbed a failure.
While Alfonso's task was a commission to create some sculptures of sprites to sprinkle throughout the grounds, Wright was responsible for the other aspects of Midway Gardens, which opened in 1914 as a 300 foot square indoor/outdoor entertainment facility at the southwest corner of Cottage Grove Ave. and E. 60th St. in the Hyde Park neighborhood on the South Side of Chicago. Designed to be a European style concert garden with space for year-round dining, drinking and performances, it struggled financially and was torn down in October 1929. Because it was reported Wright never shared any credit with Alfonso during the hype of the launch of the project, a rift developed between the two that is said to have remained for the rest of their lives.
By 1915, Margaret joined her husband in Chicago and they made the city their home, opening a studio in Park Ridge which they maintained for 46 years. The duo earned their own claim-to-fame reputations for their designs of pavilions and exhibits for the 1933 World's Fair, which unfortunately, have long been lost. But one Iannelli sculpture is still easily seen on display every day in downtown Chicago. It's the 30-foot high relief of the Rock of Gibraltar carved on the side of the Prudential Building, depicted as the Rock of Gibraltar and the surrounding seas, carved into the facade above the entrance plaza. Park Ridge is also still the home of one of his collaborations, the Pickwick Theater.
The couple's artistic eye and influence also attracted the interests of the community, education and church leaders around Northwest Indiana.
"Schools and churches in Indiana would include artistic commissions from Alfonso in architectural design, as a mark of whimsical ornate details with an original impression to capture the eye," Samuelson said.
At the now razed Oliver P. Morton School, which was once at 7040 Marshall Ave. in the Hessville area in Hammond, Alfonso worked with local architect firm Hutton & Hutton, Architects & Engineers, which is still based in Hammond today, to create intricate screens, featuring the shady leaves of a sprawling tree forming a canopy for a wise owl, to be included in the design of the school in 1936. It is just one panel piece of a decorative perforated terra cotta screen that was above the entrance of the school. In a collaboration that included Chicago architect George Grant Elmslie, Alfonso also created a terra cotta sculpture of an amused child cradling a rabbit while stacking building blocks for an adornment that was located above a kindergarten play area. The preserved screen sculptures are included as part of this summer's exhibit in Chicago, which includes 65 pieces of the husband and wife artists' work.
Prior to his school projects in Northwest Indiana, his Iannelli Studios was commissioned in 1928 to design a new altar and furnishings for the St. Mary of the Immaculate Conception Church in Michigan City, including a stately solid wood "Bishop's Chair," also on loan for the exhibit.
Some of the prominently recalled pieces from the Iannelli inspiration came in the later years, following wife Margaret's illness. After suffering from the death of the couple's child in 1922, Margaret's mental state deteriorated and she was eventually committed to a sanitarium, though she continued to provide illustrations and art for Rand McNally and the Winnetka School System.
Alfonso still followed the couple's dream, with their goal to bring Modern Art to everyone. He decided on a unique way to carry their message, by expanding into commercial design and advertising, in addition to architectural interiors.
Alfonso's work for Sunbeam Products, a Chicago company famed for kitchen appliances, allowed him the opportunity to bring modernism into product design. His work was on display at the 1939 New York World's Fair, and products that he created include the C-20 Coffeemaster vacuum coffeemaker and the Osterizer kitchen blender with his prototype tapered glass vessel that's been a familiar part of blenders ever since.
"It's more than likely his design for the Oster Mixer has created the milk shake for many a diner throughout the country," said Samuelson, who lent his own personal vintage blender featuring Alfonso's design to be included in the exhibit, which is so vast and comprehensive, it even offers such early pieces as Alfonso's grade school drawings.
"Many people might think this is an artist who had to begin excepting commercial work, like designing appliances, just for the income," Samuelson said.
"But this isn't the case at all. This was his very personal plan as a way to bring his mission for the message of Modernism Art into every home in the late 1930s during a time when many didn't have such awareness."
Alfonso Iannelli died at age 75 in Chicago in March 1965. His wife Margaret, who was institutionalized at the Elgin State Mental Hospital, followed in 1980, at age 86.