Altina Schinasi was an American sculptor, filmmaker, actress, entrepreneur, window dresser, designer, and inventor. She was known for designing what she called the “Harlequin eyeglass frame”, popularly known as cat-eye glasses. These frames featured unique and colorful geometric patterns, setting fashion trends and leaving a lasting impression on consumers and designers alike.
In this article, we will explore the life and legacy of Altina Schinasi, the visionary inventor behind the iconic Harlequin glasses.
Who Was Altina Schinasi?
Early life and family heritage
Altina Schinasi was born on August 4, 1907, in Manhattan, New York, to immigrant parents. Her father, Morris Schinasi, was a Sephardic Jewish Turk who made his fortune from the international fine tobacco business. Her mother, Laurette Schinasi née Ben Rubi, was a native of Salonica (then in the Ottoman Empire) and the granddaughter of Schinasi’s business associate Joseph Ben Rubi. Altina was the youngest of four children and grew up in a luxurious mansion on the Upper West Side. She attended Horace Mann School and Dana Hall School in Massachusetts, where she developed an interest in art.
Artistic journey and entrepreneurship
After graduating from high school, Altina traveled to Paris with her mother and sister, where she studied painting with her cousin René Bensussan. She returned to New York and enrolled at the Art Students League, where she learned from Samuel Halpert and George Grosz. In 1928, she married her first husband, Morris B. Sanders, a noted architect who designed their home in Greenwich Village. They had two sons, Terry and Denis, who both became film directors.
Altina pursued various artistic endeavors throughout her life. She worked as a window dresser for Fifth Avenue stores, collaborating with Salvador Dalí on some occasions. She invented the Harlequin eyeglass frame in the late 1930s, which became a sensation in the fashion world and earned her an American Design Award from Lord & Taylor in 1939. She also produced documentaries, such as George Grosz’ Interregnum (1960), which won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival. She wrote a memoir titled The Road I Have Traveled (1995), in which she recounted her experiences and relationships with famous figures such as Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks, Clare Boothe Luce, and Charlie Chaplin.
Philanthropy and legacy
Altina was also involved in philanthropic causes throughout her life. She volunteered as an art therapist for mentally ill patients at Bellevue Hospital. She donated money to various organizations, such as the American Civil Liberties Union, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. She also supported her mother’s initiative to establish a children’s hospital in Manisa, Turkey, in honor of her father.
Altina died on August 19, 1999, at the age of 92 in Santa Fe, New Mexico. She was buried next to her third husband, Tino Miranda, a Cuban filmmaker who died in 1981. Her life and work were celebrated in a documentary titled Altina (2014), directed by her grandson Peter Sanders.
Old Hollywood Connection
One of Altina’s first jobs was as a window dresser for Fifth Avenue stores such as Bonwit Teller and Saks Fifth Avenue. She worked with Peter Copeland, a renowned designer who hired her for his studio. She had a flair for creating eye-catching displays that attracted customers and critics alike. She also had the opportunity to work with Salvador Dalí, who was commissioned to design two windows for Bonwit Teller in 1939. Altina helped him execute his surrealistic visions using mannequins, props, and lighting effects.
Harlequin glasses frame
Altina’s most famous invention was the Harlequin eyeglass frame, which she designed in 1938 after noticing that women’s glasses were boring and unflattering. She was inspired by the masks worn by Venetian carnival-goers and decided to create a frame that would accentuate the eyes and cheekbones of women. She sketched several designs and took them to different manufacturers, but they all rejected her idea as too radical. However, she found one shop owner who agreed to make an exclusive batch for her. She then wore them around town and soon received compliments and inquiries from other women who wanted to buy them.
The Harlequin glasses became a sensation in the fashion world and were featured in magazines such as Vogue and Life. They were also worn by celebrities such as Audrey Hepburn, Marilyn Monroe, Grace Kelly, and Elizabeth Taylor. They became a symbol of glamour, sophistication, and femininity in the 1950s and 1960s. Altina received an American Design Award from Lord & Taylor in 1939 for her invention and was recognized as a pioneer in the eyewear industry.
Altina moved to California in the late 1940s with her second husband, George Marek, a music executive who worked for RCA Victor. They settled in Beverly Hills and became part of the Hollywood elite. Altina befriended many stars, such as Charlie Chaplin, Marlene Dietrich, Frank Sinatra, and Judy Garland. She also pursued her filmmaking career and produced several documentaries, such as The Lovers of Teruel (1956), a musical adaptation of a Spanish legend; George Grosz’ Interregnum (1960), a biographical portrait of her former teacher; and Chairacters (1970), a whimsical animation featuring her own sculptures.
Legacy and Recognition
Altina was also a talented sculptor who created whimsical and expressive figures out of chairs. She called them “Chairacters” and displayed them in her home and garden. She used various materials, such as wood, metal, fabric, and paint, to give them personality and character. She also animated them in a short film titled Chairacters (1970), which was narrated by Orson Welles. The film was shown at the Cannes Film Festival and received positive reviews. Altina’s Chairacters were also exhibited at various museums and galleries, such as the Smithsonian Institution and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.
March on Washington
Altina was a passionate supporter of the civil rights movement and participated in the historic March on Washington in 1963. She joined thousands of people who gathered at the Lincoln Memorial to hear Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech. She also met Rosa Parks, the activist who refused to give up her seat on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1955. Altina admired Parks for her courage and dignity and later invited her to stay at her home in Santa Fe.
Altina spent her later years in Santa Fe, New Mexico, where she continued to create art and support various causes. She married her third husband, Tino Miranda, a Cuban filmmaker who shared her artistic vision and political views. They lived together until his death in 1981. Altina then lived alone until she died in 1999 at the age of 92. She left behind a rich legacy of creativity, innovation, and philanthropy that inspired generations of artists, designers, and activists.
The Iconic Cat-Eye Glasses
Inspiration and designs
The Harlequin eyeglass frame, or cat-eye glasses, was Altina’s most iconic invention that revolutionized the eyewear industry and influenced fashion trends for decades. She came up with the idea in 1938 after noticing that women’s glasses were dull and unflattering. She wanted to create a frame that would enhance the eyes and cheekbones of women and make them feel more confident and attractive. She was inspired by the masks worn by Venetian carnival-goers, which had pointed corners and colorful patterns. She sketched several designs and took them to different manufacturers, but they all rejected her idea as too radical.
However, she found one shop owner who agreed to make an exclusive batch for her. She then wore them around town and soon received compliments and inquiries from other women who wanted to buy them. She named them Harlequin glasses after the comic character from Italian commedia dell’arte who wore a similar mask. She also patented her invention in 1939 under the name “Eyeglass Frame”. Her designs featured various shapes, colors, and materials, such as plastic, metal, rhinestones, and pearls. Some of her frames had names such as “Glamour Puss”, “Femme Fatale”, “Siren”, and “Vamp”.
Impact on fashion and eyewear industry
The Harlequin glasses became a sensation in the fashion world and were featured in magazines such as Vogue and Life. They were also worn by celebrities such as Audrey Hepburn, Marilyn Monroe, Grace Kelly, Elizabeth Taylor, and Barbara Stanwyck. They became a symbol of glamour, sophistication, and femininity in the 1950s and 1960s.
The Harlequin glasses also had a significant impact on the eyewear industry and inspired many other designers to create their own versions of cat-eye glasses. Some of the notable brands that followed Altina’s footsteps were Ray-Ban, Dior, Gucci, Prada, Chanel, Versace, Dolce & Gabbana. The cat-eye glasses became a staple accessory for women of all ages and backgrounds who wanted to express their style and personality.
Lasting legacy and influence
The Harlequin glasses, or cat-eye glasses, have a lasting legacy and influence in the fashion and eyewear industry. They are still popular today and are worn by celebrities such as Rihanna, Lady Gaga, Katy Perry, and Taylor Swift. They are also seen on the runways of major fashion shows and in the collections of contemporary designers. They have also inspired various adaptations and variations, such as oversized, round, square, or angular shapes, as well as different colors, patterns, and embellishments.
The Harlequin glasses are more than just a fashion statement. They are also a cultural icon that represents the creativity, innovation, and vision of Altina Schinasi, the woman who invented them. They reflect her artistic spirit and her desire to challenge the norms and conventions of her time. They also embody her values and beliefs, such as her support for civil rights, women’s rights, and human rights. They are a testament to her legacy as a visionary inventor who changed the world with her ideas.
Altina Schinasi was an American sculptor, filmmaker, actress, entrepreneur, window dresser, designer, and inventor. She was known for designing the Harlequin eyeglass frame, or cat-eye glasses, which became a sensation in the fashion world and influenced generations of consumers and designers. She was also a prolific artist who created various works of art, such as paintings, documentaries, and sculptures. She was also a philanthropist who supported various causes, such as civil rights, mental health, and children’s welfare. She lived a remarkable life that was full of creativity, innovation, and philanthropy. She was a visionary inventor who left behind a rich legacy that continues to inspire people today.