Harry Bertoia’s artistic talent was acknowledged right from the beginning. When his father took the 15-year-old Italian boy to Detroit to visit his brother he was accepted in a program for talented students in art and science at Cass Technical High School.
It should be the beginning of a fulfilled career in art and design. While on a scholarship at the Art School of the Detroit Society of Arts and Crafts he took part in many local art competitions. Yet another stipend brought Bertoia to the Cranbrook Academy of Art. Eliel Saarinen, father of Eero Saarinen and founder president of the academy, persuaded him to set up the department of metalworking. Harry Bertoia had found his material.
The Cranbrook Academy was an exhilarating place to be for young artists. A new institution without degrees but with a social message the academy encouraged its students to explore arts, express themselves.
The relationships and connections formed there should result in some of the best collaborations in the history of Modern American design and beyond. Charles and Ray Eames met at the academy, Eero Saarinen taught and Walter Gropius visited. To name just a few.
Due to the shortage of metal during the war Bertoia centered his work around jewelry, consuming less of the precious material. Charles and Ray’s wedding rings were made by their friend. Their relationship should continue.
In 1943 Bertoia began developing techniques for moulding plywood with Eames building on the Organic Design competition that Eames and Saarinen had won earlier. The winning designs couldn’t yet successfully be mass-produced and Bertoia came on board to help solve the issues. The separation of the armrest from the back rest as well the skeletal tubular steel base for plywood chairs were his concepts but he didn’t receive the credit for either of them. Seeing the limitations of this partnership he moved on.
The company Knoll, a melting pot of modern design, like Cranbrook where Florence Knoll was a classmate, offered Bertoia to design for them whatever he wanted with full credit and handsome compensation. It resulted in Bertoia being a made man. He was able to buy the house and studio in Pennsylvania that is the family home till today and the royalties of the extremely successful wire chair collection enabled him to focus on his sculpting work for the rest of his life.
The Diamond chair series was born. A collection of innovative wire mesh seating with the characteristic tubular steel base formed and welded by hand in a highly complex process including a bar stool, chair and side chair as well as a children’s chair.
Bertoia solved all the functional and industrial obstacles but the artist in him sculpted the form of the chair. He is often quoted comparing the chair to a sculpture.
The Bird chair too is very similar to the Diamond series but slightly more dominant in shape and typically fully upholstered.
The first piece designed for Knoll was the sophisticated Bertoia bench, not yet featuring the signature wire grid but a combination of wooden slats and a welded wire base already promising what was to come.
At the core Harry Bertoia was an artist and highly productive to say the least. He had produced more than 50000 pieces of art. Starting early as a student with experimental prints and drawings later known as monoprints, he added jewelry, accomplished utilitarian objects and foremost sculptures to his portfolio.
His real passion was metal sculpting, already apparent in his wire chair designs and he is often quoted saying, "If you look at these chairs, they are mainly made of air, like sculpture. Space passes right through them."
The effects of metal, manipulated in many ways, and air passing through fascinated him and he created different variations of sound sculptures that are not only astonishing visual works of art but create an audible experience as well. He even produced a series of albums titled Sonambient entirely performed by his sculptures and the elements of nature. Harry Bertoia should take organic design to another level.