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Altina Schinasi: The Creative Journey of an Iconic Designer

Altina Schinasi, a renowned designer, sculptor, and filmmaker, made significant contributions to the art and fashion worlds. Her iconic Harlequin eyeglass frame revolutionized eyewear fashion, and her artistic endeavours spanned painting, filmmaking, and sculpting. Altina's creative journey took her from New York to California, where she explored new artistic avenues and left an indelible mark on the art world. Her legacy serves as a testament to the transformative power of art and the enduring impact of visionary designers.

By Shreya Rajvanshi Gangal

Altina Schinasi: The Creative Journey of an Iconic Designer

Altina Schinasi, a visionary designer, sculptor, and filmmaker, left an indelible mark on the world of fashion and art. Born on August 4, 1907, in Manhattan's Upper West Side, Altina's creative journey took her from New York to California, where she made groundbreaking contributions to the eyewear industry and pursued her passion for painting and filmmaking. This article delves into the life and achievements of Altina Schinasi, highlighting her iconic Harlequin eyeglass frame, her artistic endeavours, and her impact on the art world.

Early Life and Artistic Beginnings

Altina Schinasi was born into the esteemed Schinasi family, and from a young age, she displayed a deep appreciation for art. After completing her education at the prestigious Horace Mann School, Altina ventured to Paris, where she honed her painting skills under the guidance of her cousin, Rene Bensussan. Inspired by her time in Paris, Altina decided to pursue an art career and studied with Samuel Halpert at the Roerich Museum in New York.

Altina's artistic journey was influenced by her diverse heritage. Her father, Morris Schinasi, was a Sephardic Jew from Manisa, Turkey, while her mother, Laurette Schinasi, hailed from Salonica in the Ottoman Empire. The tragic loss of her father led Laurette to establish the Moris Sinasi Children's Hospital in Manisa, a testament to the family's commitment to philanthropy and healthcare.

Window Dresser and Encounters with Great Artists

Altina Schinasi's creative pursuits led her to work as a window dresser for Fifth Avenue stores, where she collaborated with prominent artists of the time. It was during this period that she found herself working alongside the legendary Salvador Dali, who had been commissioned to design windows for Bonwit Teller. Altina's admiration for German artist George Grosz also brought them together as she studied with him at the Art Students League in New York. In Grosz's classes, Altina once again crossed paths with Salvador Dali, who sought to utilize the model for his artistic endeavors.

The Harlequin Glasses Frame: Redefining Eyewear Fashion

Altina Schinasi's breakthrough moment came when she introduced the Harlequin eyeglass frame, a design that would revolutionize the eyewear industry. Inspired by her dissatisfaction with the uninspiring frames she encountered in an optician's window, Altina embarked on a quest to create frames that exuded whimsy, mystery, and romance. Drawing inspiration from the Harlequin mask, she began cutting masks into the frames she envisioned, resulting in a unique and captivating design.

Schinasi's innovative eyeglass frames quickly gained recognition and popularity. In 1939, she won the Lord & Taylor Annual American Design Award for her avant-garde transformation of eyewear into a fashion accessory. Vogue and Life magazines hailed her as a trailblazer who forever changed the aesthetic and perception of eyewear. This accolade propelled Altina's career and led her to expand her operation to the West Coast after relocating to California.

California Years: Artistic Exploration and Film Production

In the 1940s, Altina Schinasi embraced the vibrant artistic community of Los Angeles, devoting more time to her art and exploring new creative avenues. She enrolled in studies with Howard Warshaw at the Jepson School of Art and dedicated herself to painting. Her large-scale paintings caught the attention of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), which included her works in its juried show.

During her time in California, Altina embarked on a new artistic venture - filmmaking. Inspired by her former teacher, George Grosz, she conceptualized and produced a short documentary film titled "George Grosz' Interregnum." With Grosz's permission, Altina created a film showcasing his anti-Nazi drawings, narrated by Lotte Lenya. The film received critical acclaim, earning an Academy Award nomination and the First Prize at the Venice Film Festival.

March on Washington: A Film That Never Came to Be

Following the success of "George Grosz' Interregnum," Altina Schinasi became inspired by the renowned civil rights leader

Martin Luther King Jr. and his historic March on Washington. She acquired film rights to document the event and enlisted author John Oliver Killens to write the screenplay. Altina even had the opportunity to meet Martin Luther King Jr. in Atlanta, where she presented him with the script. However, despite the interest of Italian director Vittorio De Sica in directing the film, Altina faced insurmountable challenges in securing funding, and the project remained unrealized.

Sculptural Chairs: Where Function Meets Form

Altina Schinasi's creative spirit extended beyond eyewear and filmmaking. While exploring the work of renowned photographer Cartier-Bresson, Altina drew inspiration from unoccupied chairs, combining their function with the form of the sitter. She referred to these unique creations as "characters." Altina's creative process involved sculpting the core in Styrofoam and then crafting the final form in plaster. The fibreglass casts produced from her prototypes gained recognition and was even featured on the cover of The Los Angeles Times Magazine.

Later Years and Legacy

In her later years, Altina Schinasi continued to paint and sculpt, establishing herself in Santa Fe, New Mexico. She lived there with her fourth husband, painter Celestino Miranda, until her passing. Altina's artistic contributions and innovative designs left a lasting impact on the art and fashion industries, cementing her status as a pioneering creative force.


Altina Schinasi's creative journey was one of relentless innovation and artistic exploration. From her iconic Harlequin eyeglass frame to her foray into filmmaking and her sculptural chairs, Altina left an indelible mark on various artistic mediums. Her vision, passion, and unwavering commitment to her craft continue to inspire artists and designers to think beyond boundaries. Altina Schinasi's legacy serves as a testament to the power of artistic expression and the enduring impact of creative visionaries.

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