Harry Bertoia first came to the United States at age 15 on what was intended to be a temporary visit to see his older brother in Detroit. Not feeling compelled to leave, he made the pivotal decision to stay in Michigan and study art and design at Cass Technical High School. At Cass, Bertoia learned how to make jewelry by hand, developing the skills that would later launch his career at the Cranbook Academy of Art. There, he established his first metal working studio and, as head of that department, taught from 1939 until 1943, when it was closed due to wartime restrictions on materials.
At Cranbrook, Bertoia shared his enthusiasm for design with established notables such as Walter Gropius, Edmund N. Bacon, and Charles and Ray Eames. When the war effort made metal a rare and expensive commodity, he focused his studio efforts on jewelry making and, at one point, designed wedding rings for both the Bacons and the Eamses. In 1943, he moved to California to work with the Eamses for the Evans Product Company, where they experimented with molded plywood.
However, Bertoia still longed to work with metal rather than wood. His passion for metal working, combined with a desire to spearhead his own creative projects, encouraged him to split with the Eamses only three short years later. In 1950, he relocated to Pennsylvania to work with Hans and Florence Knoll, developing the now world-famous Bertoia Collection for Knoll.
Bertoia introduced an icon of modern design when he created the Diamond chair for Knoll in 1952. An unusually beautiful piece of furniture, the Diamond chair embraced a brand new material — industrial wire mesh – that would appear at once both strong and delicate. In spite of being made almost entirely by hand, the Diamond chair was an immediate commercial success. Resembling a bird with spread wings, the aptly-named Bird chair was a high-backed version of the Diamond chair. Like the Diamond chair, the Bird chair was also sculpted from bent metal rods. A fluid, sculptural piece made from a molded lattice of welded steel, the Bird chair created a new look for modernism with its organic, human friendly form.
Since a suitable process for mass production could not be found at the time, the Bertoia Collection was originally produced as handmade objects. It seems fitting that Bertoia therefore thought of his designs as functional, yet ethereal, pieces of sculpture. “If you look at these chairs,” he noted, “they are mainly made of air, like sculpture. Space passes right through them.”
Later, as a fellow at the Graham Foundation in Chicago, Bertoia began to satisfy more intensely his desire to create sculptural works and explored various ways of manipulating metal to produce sound. By stretching and bending the metal, he could make it respond to wind or touch, creating different tones. His interactive, kinetic sculpture earned him accolades as a respected, gifted artist. Whether works of art or design objects, Bertoia’s creations always resonate with the user as emotionally and intellectually powerful experiences.
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