The mid-century designer behind Knoll’s famous Bertoia chair had a lesser-known passion for creating organic jewelry pieces and sonambient sculptures.
By Annette Maxon
A question to ponder: What do haunting music, furniture design, and exquisitely wrought metal jewelry have in common? For Harry Bertoia, the Italian–American designer behind Knolls’s Bertoia chair, quite a lot. He was a trailblazer when it came to transforming cold, shapeless metal into mid-century masterpieces, and his use of simplistic, linear patterns in furniture design now define the Modern aesthetic that so many love. But the undiscovered side to Bertoia is a force to be reckoned with: massive metal sculptures that sing and dainty jewelry pieces are his lesser-known projects that clearly ring with the artist’s natural creativity.
Born in 1915, 50 miles north of Venice, the young Bertoia was undoubtedly an artist. As young as ten years old, Bertoia was entrusted with the responsibility of embroidering wedding linens for local brides. The small-town life was not for Bertoia though; in 1930, a teenage Bertoia made the transatlantic journey to Michigan, the Midwestern state that was home to the Cranbrook Academy of Art—the unbeknownst watering hole for mid-century Modern artists. After completing his high school education and studying drawing at the Detroit Society of Arts and Crafts, Bertoia eventually snagged a scholarship to Cranbrook. It was here that Bertoia honed his artistry under the likes of Bauhaus architect Walter Gropius and Carl Milles, Cranbrook’s resident sculptor. Although he was young, Bertoia claimed a place for himself as a master metalsmith who could create elegant, leafy necklaces out of harsh metal materials. His skill was so well-respected among the Cranbrook community that he was commissioned to design the engagement band for Ray Eames, of the Eames design duo. These early years at Cranbrook were undoubtedly formative, as the creative energy from the Academy’s resident artists was infectious, pushing Bertoia to challenge the limits of design.
The infectious sun and possibilities of the west coast eventually enticed Bertoia to leave Cranbrook and head to California with architect Charles Eames. Though their partnership did not work out (long story short: Eames stole the credit for the young artist’s innovative curved plywood chair), his relationship with Eames landed him a spot in an intensive welding class located on the shores of Santa Monica. Despite the heat and smog of the metal workshop, it was here that Bertoia came into his own. He returned to creating delicate metal jewelry (similar to the works he made at Cranbrook), and later expanded his repertoire to a collection of massive public statues and metal sculptures that literally sang. The latter he dubbed the “sonambient sculptures” that, at the time, rocked both the design and music worlds. Lucky crowds routinely gathered at Bertoia’s property for concerts put on by Bertoia and his orchestra of metallic statues. Like the Knolls furniture collection, for which he is most often known, Bertoia’s metal creations reflected his love for curved, organic lines and natural materials.
Between his musical sculptures, wood-hewn chairs, metal necklaces, and leaf-like broaches, Bertoia’s impression has been a subtle force of nature.
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