Altina Schinasi's Harlequin eyewear design remains impactful in fashion today.

NEW YORK—On August 4, Google’s logo looked a little different. Google often replaces its standard logo with what it calls a Google Doodle—an adaptation of its classic logo to celebrate a holiday, a person, a historical event, a work of art, or anything, really—and the subject of August 4’s Doodle was Altina Schinasi, most well-known as the designer of the Harlequin eyeglass frames. August 4, 2023, marked what would have been Schinasi’s 116th birthday, Google reported, and with the help of her son Terry Sanders, Google created a logo that showcased her iconic design.

Schinasi was born on August 4, 1907, Google reports, in Manhattan. Her mother was from Salonica, which was then part of the Ottoman Empire and is today in Greece, while her father had been born in Turkey. Schinasi grew up in New York City, and eventually attended the Dana Hall School in the early 1920s. She was active in school, but felt slightly different due to her Jewish faith. The Dana Hall School writes, “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.”

On August 4, Google celebrated eyewear designer Altina Schinasi’s 116th birthday. Image via Google
After finishing school, Schinasi headed to Paris with her sister, but was back home in New York by the late 1920s, according to the Dana Hall School. According to ARTnews, the New York art scene is where Schinasi really began to thrive. ARTnews explains, “She began her creative career as a window dresser for New York’s Fifth Avenue luxury storefronts. In her role as a window dresser, she helped Salvador Dali fully realize and execute his window designs at Bonwit Teller & Co. department store. At the same time, she took art classes at the Art Students League of New York, where artists Howard Warshaw and George Grosz were her instructors.”

It was in this work that Schinasi designed her groundbreaking eyewear, which still holds strong today. In her obituary, The New York Times wrote that an uninspiring window display at a nearby optician’s office made her realize how few exciting eyewear options were available for women. She decided to take matters into her own hands and design something new—and Harlequin Glasses, what we now call cat eye frames, were born. The design was inspired by the shape of Harlequin masks, which Schinasi saw during the Carnevale festival in Venice, Italy, Google reports. Her edgy new design was not quick to take off—Google and The New York Times report that almost all the manufacturers Schinasi approached rejected her. Eventually, though, she had a breakthrough. Lugene, an optical shop on Madison Avenue, asked for a six-month run of the design. The New York Times reports, “…one of the first pairs was sold to the writer Clare Boothe Luce. Other New York trendsetters followed Mrs. Luce's lead, and by the late 1930's, Harlequin glasses were the rage.”

The design took off, and Schinasi was able to start her own company. She received an American Design Award from Lord & Taylor for the frames in 1939, and then sold the company in the mid-1940s, The New York Times reports, and moved to Los Angeles, where she eventually became a filmmaker. She produced a documentary about George Grosz, wrote a memoir, volunteered as an art therapist, and, Google reports, invented a style of portrait chairs and benches that she called Chairacters.

Fresberg Cartoon uploaded a video biography of Altina Schinasi to YouTube to educate students about her impact on fashion.

Although Altina Schinasi is not a name that rolls off the tongue today when we think about eyewear designers, there is no question that her design has impacted eyewear every day for the past 80 or so years. Cat eye frames are now ubiquitous—flattering on almost everyone, always a conversation starter, and beloved worldwide. It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that just about every optical shop in existence carries some sort of cat eye frame—and that the design is constantly adapted, reborn, refreshed, and brought back into the limelight. Her design is one of the most impactful in eyewear’s history.

Schinasi passed away at her home in Santa Fe, New Mexico, in August 1999. Director Peter Sanders released a documentary, titled Altina, about her in 2014. On her 116th birthday, as part of her Google Doodle celebration, her son Terry wrote:

“Happy Birthday, Tina! Thank you for your courage, kindness and inspiration. Much love, always.”

-Terry (son), Victoria, Juliette, Peter, David, Eve, Jessica, Brittany (grandchildren)