Knoll historian Brian Lutz said “Bertoia’s paintings were better than his sculptures. And his sculptures were better than his furniture. And his furniture was absolutely brilliant.” Printmaker, jeweler, furniture designer and sculptor, Harry Bertoia was a master of many mediums. However, his greatest passion in life was metal. A recurring theme in his furniture and sculptures, he almost exclusively dedicated himself to the material, creating an immense oeuvre throughout his long and prolific career. While almost every designer knows of Bertoia’s Diamond Chair, some of his greatest achievements remain in shadows. There was much more to Harry Bertoia – visionary and innovator – than his famed furniture collection.
Early Life and Education
Born in 1915, Harry Bertoia spent his childhood in a small village in Italy. He showed immense talent for the arts as a young boy. At the age of fifteen he got the opportunity to pursue a formal art education in the United States. He subsequently moved to Detroit, where his older brother was already living. Once Harry had learned English and caught up with his peers, he enrolled in Cass Technical High School, which had a special art program for talented students. In 1936, Bertoia received a one-year scholarship at another art school, before being accepted at the Cranbrook Academy of Art in Michigan, which marked a turning point in his life.
The Academy was at the time a buzzing center for many notable creatives, including Walter Gropius, the Eameses, Florence Knoll and Edmund Bacon. Harry Bertoia was a painting student at first, but in 1939 he was invited to reopen the metal workshop. With the war effort in full steam, metal had become a rare and expensive luxury limited to military use. Bertoia then resorted to creating jewelry, since it didn’t require much material.
He also dabbled in graphics, creating monotypes with abstract designs featuring colorful geometric shapes. It was a technique he continued to practice for the rest of his life, along with his many other passions. At the Cranbrook Academy he met his future wife, Brigitta Valentiner, whose family was very influential in art circles. They introduced Bertoia to the likes of Klee, Miró and Kandinsky. Bertoia’s time at the Academy ultimately paved the way for his eclectic and successful career, propelling him into the exciting world of academic artists and like-minded visionaries.
Collaboration with Knoll: Path to Success
In 1943, Harry Bertoia moved to California to work with the Eameses, who were experimenting with molded plywood at the time. It is widely thought that Bertoia’s contribution to their design for the molded plywood chair was a key factor in its successful mass production, for which he received no credit from the Eameses. During these years, he took up welding, all the while continuing with art in his spare time. Displeased with the lack of recognition for his achievements, an invitation to collaborate from old friends sparked Bertoia’s relocation to Pennsylvania in 1950, changing the course of his career.
It was the beginning of a fruitful partnership with Hans and Florence Knoll which allowed Harry Bertoia to finally unleash his potential and be recognized for his work. In the upcoming years, he designed a range of furniture which became known as the Bertoia collection for Knoll. The most successful piece of the collection, in continuous production since its launch in 1952, is the Diamond Chair. The fluid, welded steel chair with its characteristic form was a true piece of modernity and one of Bertoia’s most recognizable designs. The chairs he created for Knoll were conceptualized as “sculptures made mainly of air”. The commercial success of the collection enabled Harry Bertoia to place his passion for sculpture at the forefront of his focus, while making a living from the sales.
Sculptor of Sound
From the fifties onward, sculpture became Bertoia’s main form of expression. He began creating monumental public sculptures upon commission. The first of over fifty he created in his lifetime was in 1953, when Eero Saarinen hired him to design a large metal screen for General Motors Technical Center. One of Bertoia’s most striking sculptures from this phase, also commissioned by Saarinen, was the altarpiece for the MIT chapel. A shimmering cascade of metal, it utilizes the reflective properties of the material to form an iridescent installation in the center of the chapel.
The sixties were an important decade for Bertoia, as he started experimenting with the element of sound in his sculpture work. His sounding sculptures, also called “Sonambient”, were created with the musical potential of metal in mind. They often consisted of vertical rods weighted at the tips, producing deep, reverberating sounds as they swayed. Harry Bertoia played with a number of parameters such as the material, shape, size and density of the compositions in order to achieve a vast array of musical tones. The result was hundreds of sculptures which resonated in response to wind and touch, creating an audiovisual spectacle.
He renovated an old barn, converting it into a recording studio. There he played and exhibited over a hundred of his favorite sculptures. He held small concerts for friends where he played his “instruments” with his brother, who was his collaborator in the musical experiments. During his lifetime, he recorded eleven albums titled “Sonambient” of the sounds created by his art. One of the most monumental of Bertoia’s sounding sculptures was installed on the plaza of the Standard Oil Company headquarters – today the Aon Center – in 1975.
Other widely recognizable examples of Bertoia’s sculptures were the “sunburst” “dandelion” and “bush” series. Hundreds of rods protruding from a central sphere mimicked shapes found in nature, which was a never-ending source of inspiration for Bertoia.
Master of Metal
Among his last public commissions was a memorial fountain in honor of the Marshall University football team who were killed in a plane crash in 1970. The floral form sculpted from metal rods was meant to “commemorate the living – rather than death – on the waters of life, rising, receding, surging so as to express upward growth, immortality and eternity.”
The same could be said for Harry Bertoia, who ventured beyond the limits of his small village in Italy to fulfil his full potential as an artist. He continued to surge upwards throughout his lifetime, dedicating all of his passion and energy to art and design. His lifelong exploration of the versatile properties of metal was his greatest preoccupation and achievement. For decades after his death, Bertoia’s tonal barn continued to play the music of his art. Bertoia’s legacy is immortalized in the thousands of pieces of art he left behind. All of his work, from his furniture, to his monoprints and most notably, his sculptures was characterized by a unique vision and meticulous craftsmanship, making him a true pioneer of his time.