Harry Bertoia – An Iconic 20th Century Designer

This entry is part 1 of 8 in the series Harry Bertoia Chairs

Harry Bertoia

Harry Bertoia was born on 10th March 1915 in San Lorenzo, Pordenone, Italy. At the age of 15 he visited his brother in Detroit and decided to stay in the USA. He attended Cass Technical High School, where he discovered the art of making jewelry. He went on to study at the Art School of Detroit Society of Arts (College of Creative Studies) in 1938.

In 1939, he won a scholarship to Cranbrook Academy of Art and it was here that he met Ray and Charles Eames. His professional life began in his workshop teaching metal work and jewelry design. Due to the scarcity of metal during the war years he focused more on jewlry making during this period.

He married Brigitta Valentiner in 1943 and moved to California to work with Charles and Ray Eames. Amongst other endeavours at that time, they began experimenting with moulded plywood and together with Eerio Saarinen they developed a method for making moulded plywood splints that would later evolve into processes for designing furniture.

Bertoia subsequently split with Eames, preferring to work with metal rather than wood. He established a studio in Pennsylvania in 1950 and began working with Hans and Florence Knoll. It was during this period that he designed the Bertoia Collection.

Initially the pieces, upholstered to varying degrees over a molded lattice of steel rods, were produced manually. Controversy ensued when an action by Herman Miller claimed that the patent for part of the collections design, incorporating two thin wires welded on either side of the mesh seat had been granted to Eames. Herman Miller won the action and the Bertoia collection was re-designed using a thicker, single wire and grinding dow the edge of the seat wirer at a smooth angle.

The Bertoia Diamond Chair was a commercial success and the royalties from the sales enabled Harry Bertoia to focus on sculpture. In 1957 he became a fellow at the Graham Foundation in Chicago. His work explored the relationship between metal and the sounds resulting from its touch or wind passing through the metal sculpture.

Bertoia worked extensively on this project producing 9 albums of the music created by his art, all entitled “Sonambient”. His son Val shows his work in the video below.


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