Thomas Monahan

Fine Art

Harry Bertoia

Harry Bertoia (b. Italy 1915-1978)

Sculptor and furniture designer Harry Bertoia was born in San Lorenzo, Italy in 1915. He settled in the United States in 1930, and went on to study at the Society of Arts and Crafts in Detroit, Michigan (1936) and the Cranbrook Academy of Art in nearby Bloomfield Hills, Michigan (1937–39). At the latter, he encountered Walter Gropius, Edmund N. Bacon, and Charles and Ray Eames, and also taught metalworking and created abstract metal jewelry.
In 1943, Bertoia moved to California to work with Charles and Ray Eames for the Evans Products Company. Around that same time, he also began to create sculpture. In 1950, he settled in Bally, Pennsylvania, where he opened his own furniture and sculpture studio. His furniture designs from this period incorporated welded and molded wire. These include the Bertoia chair (1952), in which chromium-plated steel wire is reshaped by the weight of the sitter. Furniture manufacturer Knoll International marketed multiple versions of this chair, and the resulting royalties allowed Bertoia to devote himself primarily to his sculpture.
In 1953, the first of his many large sculptures—characterized by bold, organic forms and textured detail—were commissioned for Eero Saarinen’s General Motors Technical Center in Detroit. Later commissions include a 1963 bronze mural at the Dulles International Airport in Virginia and a 1967 fountain for Philadelphia’s Civic Center. In 1960, Bertoia began to concentrate on creating sound sculptures. Known collectively as Sonambient, they mostly consist of bunches of vertically mounted metal rods that create a range of sounds when they strike one another.
His work is included in numerous collections, including those of the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis; the Brooklyn Museum in New York; Detroit Institute of Arts; Cleveland Museum of Art; Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art in Kansas City; and the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, DC.
Bertoia passed away in 1978 in Barto, Pennsylvania.Harry Bertoia is probably best known for his Bertoia Chair, made of delicately crisscrossing iron bars; it’s a landmark of mid-century modern design. But the chair was only one part of a much larger practice encompassing a range of media. As art historian Brian Lutz notes, “Bertoia’s paintings were better than his sculptures. And his sculptures were better than his furniture. And his furniture was absolutely brilliant.”

Until his death in 1978, he produced numerous large sculptural commissions, earning him immortal recognition for his efforts. As he noted himself, “Man is not important. Humanity is what counts, to which, I feel, I have given my contribution. Humanity shall continue without me, but I am not going away. I am not leaving you. Every time you see some tree tops moving in the wind, you will think of me. Or you will see some beautiful flowers; you will think of me. I have never been a very religious man, not in the formal way, but each time I took a walk in the woods, I felt the presence of a superior force around me.” - Harry Bertoia, October 9, 1978 (he died less than a month later).

One series inspired by these tonal works was the Dandelion sculptures made in the early 60s, which resemble a dandelion flower gone to seed: hundreds of carefully-welded, thin, gold-plated rods radiate out from a central orb. They encircled a grand fountain at the 1964 New York World’s Fair Kodak Building, creating quite a sight. Today they fetch large prices at major auction houses, proving to be the most lasting and in-demand Bertoia sculptures.
Dissatisfied with his lack of recognition at Eames, Bertoia opened a studio in rural Pennsylvania at the behest of Florence and Hans Knoll of Knoll, Inc, who offered him free reign to create sculpture or furniture with full credit and recognition. Working within a rented barn, Bertoia came up with the now legendary, and still very popular, wire furniture collection. He was also commissioned to create sculptures for architects such as Eero Saarinen, for whom he designed a chapel altar at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Bertoia spent the next twenty-five years of his life experimenting with light, sound and volume through sculptures, paintings and architectural installations. In 1960 he began working on his tonal sculptures comprising Sonambient, his auditory and visual environments; tall, slender rods attached to a base, the ronal sculptures sway in place when pushed. Often capped in metal to make their movements more dramatic, Bertoia typically massed them together so various sounds were made when knocking into one another.

A selection of works