When Frank Lloyd Wright took credit for one of Alfonso Iannelli’s (1888–1965) most famous commissions, the Italian-born artist and designer got “mad as hell,” according to David Jameson, owner of River North’s ArchiTech Gallery.
Iannelli never set the record straight regarding the concrete sprite sculptures he designed for Midway Gardens, the stunning Hyde Park entertainment complex Wright completed in 1914. (Midway Gardens was demolished in 1929, but you can still buy replicas of the sprites—attributed to Wright—for your garden, as architecture critic Lynn Becker discovered in 2008.) Though Iannelli’s career took off anyway, Jameson says the artist-designer began slipping into obscurity after World War II.
During the past several months, however, the authors of design blog PrairieMod and other locals have remembered Iannelli’s impact on Chicagoland as the organization Save Iannelli Studios fights to preserve his former home and office at 225 North Northwest Highway in Park Ridge.
Today, the best place to see Iannelli’s work is Adler Planetarium, where his 12 bronze plaques depicting the signs of the zodiac in glamorous Art Moderne style adorn the building’s exterior. You can also still view the interiors of Park Ridge’s Pickwick Theatre and Barrington’s Catlow Theater, which he designed in the 1920s, and the Rock of Gibraltar relief on the facade of One Prudential Plaza—one of his last commissions.
Jameson, who estimates that he owns 80 percent of Iannelli’s archive, exhibits about 20 of the artist-designer’s sketches at ArchiTech through April 30. Most date from the 1920s or 1930s. “A lot of these drawings were tucked into the job files,” the dealer explains. But they have little to do with the consumer products that Iannelli was designing at the time for companies such as Wahl and Sunbeam, or with the exhibits that his firm, which grew to about 15 employees, created for the 1933 Century of Progress World’s Fair. The ArchiTech show includes nudes, a lovely pencil portrait titled Pretty Girl, cityscapes, drawings in the styles of artists Henry Moore and Fernand Léger, and abstractions inspired by work that Iannelli saw during a visit to the Bauhaus in 1924. There’s also an amusing illustration of a lawyer gesturing wildly, which Iannelli drew when he was involved in a lawsuit.
“His attitude was ‘my way or the highway,’ ” Jameson says, adding that the Midway Gardens project represents one of the few times Iannelli “subsumed his personality” for an employer or client—and that ended once he thought Wright betrayed him.
Wright’s son, architect John Lloyd Wright, was the person who invited Iannelli to Chicago. They met in Los Angeles, where the younger Wright was impressed by the artist-designer’s modernist posters for the Orpheum Theatre. Iannelli’s family had left Italy for Newark, New Jersey, when he was a child. After a teenage apprenticeship with Mount Rushmore sculptor Gutzon Borglum, he attended the Art Students League in New York and, by 1910, had settled in L.A.
Jameson believes Chicago’s vibrant architecture and design community is what kept Iannelli here. After Midway Gardens, he produced sculptures and interiors for buildings designed by his friend Barry Byrne, a former Wright apprentice. Though the duo collaborated on local projects as well, including Immaculata High School (now the American Islamic College) at Irving Park Road and Marine Drive, Jameson says that Iannelli’s contributions have been removed or altered beyond recognition.
Such losses give a February 22 victory for Save Iannelli Studios special significance: Park Ridge’s Planning and Zoning Commission refused to rezone Iannelli’s former property for multifamily housing. SIS advocates transforming the site into the Iannelli Studios Heritage Center, which would educate visitors about several artists and businesses that once made Park Ridge a creative hub. The group hopes to raise $400,000, which would secure a $200,000 matching grant, by July 4.
Visit kalofoundation.org for more information about Save Iannelli Studios.