“I did have a thread all through my life that made me want to be an individual and make something of myself.” – Altina Schinasi
Altina (“Tina”) Schinasi lived a creative life as an artist, inventor, designer and entrepreneur. She was born on August 4, 1907 to parents from the Ottoman Empire and grew up in New York City. Her father, Morris Schinasi, emigrated to New York City in 1890 and established a successful family-run tobacco business selling ready made cigarettes, eventually amassing a large fortune.
After being tutored at home during her younger years, Schinasi came to Dana Hall School in the early 1920s. While at Dana Hall, she was a member of the Athletic Association, Christian Association, Varsity Hockey Team and College Club. She additionally served as the Chairman of the French Club’s Decoration Committee, Class Historian and the Vice-President of her junior and senior classes. In reflecting upon her time at Dana Hall, Schinasi explained that although she had many friends, she often felt isolated as one of the only Jewish students on campus and tried to hide that part of her identity from her classmates.
After graduation in 1924, she spent time with her younger sister in Paris and studied art for a short time with a woodblock artist. However, by the late 1920s, Schinasi was back in New York City working as a window dresser for multiple stores on Fifth Avenue. In this position, she worked with Salvador Dalí to help fully realize and execute his window designs at Bonwit Teller & Co. department store. Schinasi continued art classes at the Art Students League of New York and received instruction from artists Howard Warshaw and George Grosz.
One of Schinasi’s most remarkable accomplishments was the design and creation of the Harlequin glasses (also known as cat-eye glasses). She wanted to create a more stylish design than those typically found at the optician and found inspiration in the shape of harlequin masks. She patented her design in the late 1920s, and by the late 1930s Schinasi’s successful production of the frames and partnership with department stores saw the cat-eye glasses become a popular fashion accessory worn by many American women. Her revolutionary design was recognized by Vogue and Life magazine, and she also received the Lord & Taylor American Design Award in 1939.
Among her many accomplishments, Schinasi also had a full personal life. She was married four times: first to architect Morris Sanders, second to Viennese doctor Eric Barrett, then to political scientist Charles Carey, and finally to Cuban artist Celestino “Tino” Miranda. She had a strong fondness and connection to her two sons, Denis and Terry Sanders. They were both filmmakers and in 1955 won an Academy Award for Best Short Subject for their work on A Time Out of War.
Schinasi made another move in the 1940s, this time traveling to the West Coast. After first expanding her eyeglass business in California and opening a factory manufacturing sunglasses, Schinasi sold the company so that she could focus more on her artistic ventures. She returned to art classes, spent plenty of uninterrupted time in her art studio and also volunteered as an art therapist. She spent many years working on her “chairacters” sculptures, which featured a combination of figure (the sitter) and function (the seat) made from plaster and fiberglass. These sculptures were featured in the Los Angeles Times Magazine and on Good Morning America.
Drawing, painting and sculpting were all in Schinasi’s skill set, and she expanded her artistic repertoire to include film-making in the 1960s with her documentary film George Grosz’ Interregnum. This short film features the work of George Grosz, a German caricature artist well-known for his anti-Nazi work, and was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary Short in 1960 and won the Venice Film Festival’s first prize. It was praised for its use of Grosz’ illustrations to create a captivating and original narrative.
Schinasi’s interest in filmmaking continued and she started work on yet another project. After acquiring the film rights to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s historic account Stride Toward Freedom: The Montgomery Story, she met with him in 1961 to deliver a script and discuss producing a film about the March on Washington. She also met with civil rights activists Rosa Parks and Ralph Abernathy, and attended a service to hear Dr. Martin Luther King Sr. preach. Unfortunately, Schinasi could not secure funding for the project to continue.
Schinasi spent the later part of her life again focused on her artwork. She also made two additional moves; the first to Washington, D.C. in 1973 and her final move in 1990 to New Mexico. With each move, Schinasi expanded her social circle to include more artists, writers, filmmakers, scientists, politicians and other creative minds. She was known to keep a welcoming home and host large gatherings of friends, neighbors and acquaintances. While in New Mexico, she started writing her memoir and published The Road I Have Traveled in 1995. Schinasi passed away at the age of 92 in 1999 in New Mexico.
Altina Schinasi’s contributions to the fashion industry and art world have received recognition, and she is often remembered for her vivacious and progressive attitude about life. In addition to multiple news articles and spotlights about her life and accomplishments, the documentary film Altina premiered in 2014.
Photos reproduced with permission by the Estate of Altina Schinasi Miranda.
Altina Schinasi Carey, Washington, D.C., circa 1979. Circa 1979. Altina the Film, http://www.altinathefilm.com/photos/. Accessed December 2021.
Altina Schinasi, Santa Monica, CA, circa 1970. Circa 1970. Altina the Film, http://www.altinathefilm.com/photos/. Accessed December 2021.
Beggs, Alex. “The Delightful History of Cat-Eye Glasses in Altina.” Vanity Fair, 2 Sep 2014, https://www.vanityfair.com/hollywood/2014/09/altina-documentary-harlequin-glasses-video. Accessed December 2021.
“Altina Schinasi.” 1924 Classbook. Dana Hall School Archives, Dana Hall School, Wellesley, MA. Accessed December 2021.
Ravo, Nick. “Altina Schinasi Miranda, 92, Designer of Harlequin Glasses.” New York Times, 21 August 21, 1999, https://nyti.ms/3EJL8y8. Accessed December 2021.
Altina. Directed by Peter Sanders, Eight Twelve Productions, 2014.
Sanders, Victoria. “Estate of Altina Schinasi.” Victoria Sanders, https://www.victoriasanders.com/authors/miranda. Accessed December 2021.