HARRY BERTOIA: The Art All-Rounder

Bertoia Bird Chair - Photo by Knoll

Harry Bertoia was an Italian-born American graphic artist, sculptor, and designer. His best-known works include the diamond chair that he designed in the 1950s and his line of “Sonambient” sculptures that he made in the 1960s.

Childhood and Early Education

Harry Bertoia, 1942 – Photo by Richard Askew | Cranbrook Archives

Harry Bertoia was born Arri Bertoia on March 10, 1915, in Friuli, Italy. As a young boy, he attended school in Arzene, Carsana. Even as a child, Bertoia was already an artist. He would be asked to design embroidery patterns for the young brides of his village for their wedding day. Impressed by his talent, an art teacher offered to tutor the young Bertoia. This did not last long, as the art teacher realised that he had nothing to teach Bertoia that the latter did not already know. The teacher suggested to Bertoia’s parents that he be sent away to get further training, either in Venice or America. At the age of 15, Harry Bertoia travelled to the United States.

A New Name

In 1930, Bertoia moved to Detroit to further his education. There, his name was anglicised to Harry. Not only did he learn English, but he also got a thorough background in American history, thanks to the Davidson Americanization School. He also went to Cleveland Elementary School to complete his basic education. Afterwards, he went to Cass Technical High School, a school with a special program for students talented in the fields of arts and sciences. In 1936, Bertoia got a one-year scholarship to the School of the Detroit Society of Arts and Crafts. There, he honed his talents for painting and drawing.

Cranbrook Academy of Art

Harry Bertoia monotype print – Photo by Harry Bertoia Foundation

In 1937, Bertoia attended the Cranbrook Academy of Art in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan. This proved to be a turning point in his career. He got in on another scholarship, again for painting. Cranbrook was a different school than the ones he attended before. Students there did not receive degrees for attending, but they were given free rein to explore their artistic gifts.

At Cranbrook, Bertoia would meet and befriend other artists and designers, most of whom would become famous such as the Saarinens and the Knolls. These connections would prove helpful later on in his life. Among them was Brigitta Valentiner, whom he would marry in 1943.

In 1939, Bertoia was asked to re-open the school’s metalworking shop. However, since it was wartime and metal were scarce, he focused on creating jewellery. The jewellery designs he made during this period would later evolve into his early sculpture forms.

During his time in Cranbrook, Bertoia started to produce monotypes, one-of-a-kind prints and drawings. They proved to be quite popular, and he sold a lot of them. Eventually, some of Bertoia’s monotypes ended up being exhibited in museums.

California: Working With Eames

LKR-2 Charles Eames Wire Lounge Chair and Harry Bertoia Wire Ottoman – Photo by 1stDibs

After his time in Cranbrook, Bertoia moved to California in 1943 to join Charles Eames on a project involving moulded plywood. Previously, Eames had collaborated on a chair design that won a Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) furniture design competition. However, the design could not be mass-produced at the time. Working with Eames, Bertoia finally found a solution to make the chair viable. However, Eames gave no credit to the work done by Bertoia on the chair. This caused a rift between the two, and they soon stopped working together.

In 1946, Harry Bertoia became a United States citizen. During his time in California, Bertoia worked on several projects that kept him busy. He learned to weld, a skill that will prove very useful later on. He also started to create sculptures while still doing his monotypes. In this season, Bertoia started exhibiting his artwork in shows in museums.

Pennsylvania: Working With the Knolls

In 1950, at the behest of Hans and Florence Knolls, Bertoia would once again move to another part of the United States, this time to Pennsylvania. The couple invited him to design furniture for their company, Knolls Inc. They assured him of both creative freedom and full credit for his designs, so Bertoia accepted the offer. His output proved quite popular and very profitable for the Knolls’ company.

Bertoia’s Signature Piece

Bertoia Diamond Chair – Photo by Knoll

In 1952, Bertoia conceptualised and created his namesake design: the Bertoia chair. This piece was made from latticed polished steel wires cunningly welded together and covered with upholstery. This collection also included a side chair and a bar stool, which were made the same way.

The Knolls compensated him generously for his design, allowing Bertoia the time and opportunity to pursue his art. It also gave him the opportunity to lay down roots by purchasing a permanent home: the farmhouse that he was renting.

Sculpture: Sonambient Artwork

Harry Bertoia Sonambient – Photo by Harry Bertoia Foundation

After the success of his furniture line with the Knolls, Bertoia would focus his considerable talents on sculpture. He was tasked with creating over 50 public sculptures during his lifetime. They would be on display not only in the United States but in other countries as well. He would also start to win awards for his work and would continue to receive accolades for the rest of his life.

By the time the 1960s came about, Bertoia had started experimenting and creating tonal sculptures. These sculptures made sounds when moved by the wind or other agency. Bertoia loved music and spent hours trying to incorporate it into his artwork. He called these musical sculpture Sonambient. They ranged in size from only a few inches to up to 20 feet tall. In 1968, he remodelled his barn to hold his collection of over 100 tonal structures.

Later Years and Death

Marshall’s Huntington campus Memorial Fountain created by sculptor Harry Bertoia – Photo by Marshall University

Harry Bertoia would create all throughout the 1960s and the 1970s. Some of the more notable works in this era were the Marshall University football memorial piece in Huntington, West Virginia. He also had two large exhibitions in Oslo, Norway. He was so in demand that he had to turn down commissions and exhibits.

In 1976, Harry Bertoia was diagnosed with lung cancer. Knowing that his time was short, Bertoia furiously worked to get his life’s work in order. He organised his monotypes and perfected his tonal barn collection. In his lifetime, he probably completed more than 10,000 works of art, a staggering number.

On November 6, 1978, Harry Bertoia passed away at the age of 63. He left behind a wife, three children, and a collection of artwork that still gives inspiration and joy to all those who see them up to this day.