Harry Bertoia was a true artist. In fact, it’s hard to classify him as anything else. His unique vision inspired him to create original sculptures, jewelry, prints, sound recordings, and furniture. Born in San Lorenzo, Pordenone, Italy in 1915, Harry traveled to the United States when he was a teenager. He went to Detroit, MI, to visit his brother, but decided to stay and attend high school there.
Bertoia studied art at Cass Technical High School. He also discovered his love for jewel
ry-making while attending the school, and took classes to improve on his natural talent. He moved on to the College for Creative Studies before receiving a scholarship to attend the Cranbrook Academy of Art in Bloomfield Hills, MI. From 1937-43, Bertoia taught metalworking, painting, and jewelry design at the academy. He also met famed designers Charles and Ray Earnes during his time at Cranbrook. That friendship shaped Bertoia’s early career.
During World War II, metal began to be a scarce commodity. Bertoia necessarily reduced his metalworking in favor of small-scale jewelry design. He even developed and created wedding rings for the Earneses.
In 1943, Bertoia himself got married to Brigitta Valentiner, an artist in her own right. The two moved to Los Angeles, CA, where Harry went to work with Charles and Ray Earnes for the Evans Product Company. This arrangement lasted only three years; Harry’s tasks included technical work and drawing training manuals. He never felt that his designs received the credit they deserved during his time at Evans.
The Bertoias moved to New York City in 1950, where Harry went to work for Knoll Associates. Then they relocated to Bally, Pennsylvania, to be near the Knoll factory.
In 1952, Bertoia designed a collection of five polished steel wire chairs, one of which would become his most famous piece of furniture: the diamond chair. As its name suggests, the piece was shaped like a diamond, with the highest point forming the chair’s back support. The structure was made from thoroughly modern welded steel wire, with the final effect being very airy and artistic. Bertoia likened the chair to a sculpture.
After some dispute over the patent on the original design, Bertoia and Knoll Associates changed the chair’s support from two thin wires to one thick one. Through the years, the diamond chair has been released with fabric, leather, or vinyl upholstery in various thicknesses. It remains a popular choice in modern furniture.
After his stint with Knoll Associates, Bertoia enjoyed success and critical acclaim. He was commissioned for several sculptures, and the royalties he earned from his chair designs allowed him to pursue sculpture full time. Some of his most famous pieces were “Sounding Sculpture” of 1965, now on permanent display at the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art in Kansas City, Missouri; and the Marshall University Fountain in Huntington, West Virginia.
Bertoia sometimes described his modern metal sculptures as counterparts to his jewelry-making on a much larger scale. Some of his pieces produced sounds similar to wind chimes, and Bertoia enjoyed recording their music. P.S.F. Records released some of these recordings in the late 1990’s.
Harry Bertoia died in Barto, PA, in 1978. His legacy lives on in his art, his furniture, and his family members, many of whom have displayed notable artistic talent.