Smart as Chicago: A Love Story

Chicago panhandlers made the most of summer. In your face and annoying to the point of barfing, they stand at Metra exits with their clanging paper cups, or worse. These are not the dignified homeless, who sell a newspaper. These are Everyman or Everywoman with some cardboard box hard luck story, who happily engage you–anywhere. Meaning, in front of Walgreen’s, various bridges, and my favorite, in a wheelchair blocking the exit outside 7Eleven. For the several days I was downtown, I noticed the homeless remained in their spots daytime, but many panhandlers worked 24/7, only to disappear after the busy weekend. Having made several donations, I ducked into the beautiful Cultural Center, just to avoid the morning barrage, too early for the Art Institute of Chicago.

poster modernisms messengersPoster for the show.

That is where I found  Modernism’s Messengers: The Art of Alfonso and Margaret Iannelli, a wonderful three room show of work by the married design team.  New York may think of itself as the intellectual capital of the US, but has always been my own belief that Chicago is often more intelligent. This show, low key and well put together, reflects a certain sadness, and tragedy.

title 1

springSpring by Alphonso, 1908

DSC_0256Alfonso and Margaret Iannelli during the early Chicago period in the teens.

midway title

m gardens shot

concrete figures


midway photoThese concrete statues were all that remained, saved by one owner of the demolition companies.

Alfonso was brought in last minute to work with Wright developing figures for the Midway Garden, sort of a contemporary open air entertainment center/beer hall. Ironically, the structure lasted only 15 years and was bulldozed. The statues became a point of contention, Wright claiming he originated the designs alone.

2 faceOne wonders by the small masked face was Margaret not the inspiration?

The couple remained in Chicago and formed a studio, bringing in other craftsman. He was talented in both 2D and 3D design. She was an interesting, talented graphic design on her own, with a beautiful feel for type and design. A perfect choice for advertising and book design. They were a modern design studio, working on a broad spectrum of projects.

margaret compositeMargaret Iannelli (center, right) during the early Chicago period in the teens.

Margaret Alice EisMargaret, for the most part, absorbed early on Art Nouveau, and her work harks back to some of the swirling shapes seen in Beardsley’s Solome.

margaret poster

margaret soap

store posterMargaret’s design for baby products, give a glimpse of the actuality of product functionalism, merged with the early display and package design. 


book cover design the fir tree
Margaret’s book cover design, The Fir Tree.

book designs2 Various book designs by Margaret during the 20s and 30s.

Margaret’s ability at illustration, and her easy grasp of incorporating type into the design made her a natural for book design, and several of her printed textbook designs are here. At first, with the help of Ruth Blackwell, who oversaw her production, she was able to design from the confines of her institutionalism. Eventually, though, she had increasing difficulty meeting deadlines, and her inability to stick to schedule lost Margaret, and probably the studio, work.

oliver morton school1Alphonso’s architectural embellishment also furthered the studio. Above, Oliver Morton School terra cotta unit. 

Alfonso was not just sitting on his laurels. During the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair, he submitted designs for various companies. He worked closely with Sunbeam and his studio designed housewares for them. His work moved into the industrial design arena. He did not just rest after working with the world class architect.

wright posterAlfonso’s posters for Wright and Adler & Sullivan exhibits, reflect beautifully their Chicago architectural style.

prudential composite2Alfonso’s best known work.

Smart as Chicago is about visual art, the exhibition pointed out probably the most well known of Alfonso’s designs, the Prudential rock. Right in eyesight of the exhibit.

his final title

Margaret ElginHere is Margaret’s self-portrait as the mimeograph lady at the Elgin Institution somewhere in the 30s. 

The final display, below, is heart breaking. Here were two people whose work was so vibrant. Much of his, like the Prudential Building and the Adler Planetarium still is enjoyed. Yet, except for this show, I had never heard of them. Many artists, some with enormous impact, whose work is a household word, are forgotten in time. This, at least, commemorates the two of them.

final title


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