Portrait of Harry Bertoia, courtesy of Knoll
Harry Bertoia’s vast output of work spanned everything from sculpture to drawing; jewellery to his “sound sculptures”, as well as his famous Diamond chair. To mark the centenary of his birth, Knoll’s celebrations include the reissue of his plastic side chair. We were fortunate to be able to speak to Harry’s daughter, Celia, to find out more about his art and designs and relationship with Knoll, as well as discussing the legacy of his work.
Why did Harry Bertoia choose metal as his medium?
Harry Bertoia had a natural affinity for metal from the start. It was more like metal chose Harry. As a child he found wire egg baskets to bend and shape into creatures. While at Cranbrook Academy of Art in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, although he’d registered as a student of painting, he was immediately drawn to experimenting with metal jewellery in the smithing shop. Once he had his own studio, he was constantly playing around with various metals to discover their inherent properties. Harry wanted to figure out which metal was right for each particular type of sculpture. He especially loved beryllium copper for its rainbow colours and resonant toning qualities for the sounding sculptures. He talked about wanting to release the design that was inside the metal, just as a stonemason wants to uncover what shape the stone wants to be.
With his background as an artist and sculptor, what drove Harry Bertoia to design chairs?
The chairs were a natural progression beginning at Cranbrook. In 1940, when the Museum of Modern Art in New York offered their competition for organic design of furniture, several Cranbrook students and faculty members submitted entries. The concept of designing comfortable, “organic” seating was exciting to Harry and he participated fully in the project. Charles Eames and Eero Saarinen offered their now-famous moulded plywood chair, and Harry kept close tabs on what they were doing in their workroom across the hall from his own. Harry also entered a wooden chair of his own making but it did not win any awards. Nevertheless, Harry sketched many chair ideas from that time onward. Once he was hired by the Eames team in California, chairs were on his brain and dozens of drawings emerged both at work and on his own time. He toyed with parabolic curves, wire grids, asymmetrical shapes. Once pulled into the Knoll fold, he finally had the time to totally explore working out all the chair shapes that had been dancing around his imagination.
Courtesy of Knoll
How did his working relationship with Florence and Hans Knoll come about?
Harry met Florence Schust (“Shu”) at Cranbrook while they were both students. He had a bit of a crush on her, noting how invitingly she sat upon the Saarinen couch when he first met her and the feisty comments she tossed out. Nevertheless, she ended up working for and then marrying Hans Knoll of the Knoll furniture company. Of course, while there was no email or Twitter in the 1940s, the Cranbrook alumni managed to keep track of each other and discover what each was doing. When word got out that Bertoia chose to leave Eames, disgruntled over lack of credit on the Eames chair, Florence took advantage of the split. She invited him to come and work for Knoll, where he was promised full credit for all his work.
Brigitta, Harry’s sharp-witted wife, noted the invitation letter sitting on the kitchen counter for weeks without answer. She took it upon herself to respond in the affirmative, saying that they were happy to accept the offer. When Harry received a congratulatory post from Hans, he was confused, as he had not yet decided. Upon querying Brigitta, she offhandedly mentioned that she had accepted the offer and simply forgot to tell him! Thus they moved to Pennsylvania and began a wonderful relationship with Hans and Florence Knoll, both personal and working.
What is your personal favourite piece from your father’s design archive, and why?
The Bertoia seating designs, especially the asymmetric chaise, are sensual and beautiful and I love them all. But it is the sculptures that I most enjoy. I love the bush type sculptures, especially the larger curvy ones with interesting pods or splits. They are so alive and inviting and organic. The way they are perfectly imperfect, always not quite a sphere with branches not all quite the same length, is so representative of nature’s way. Since I grew up in the countryside, nature had a huge effect on me and anything that reminds me of nature is a happy experience. I have two small bushes in my office, which give me solace on stressful day. Did you know the bushes make sound also? Not as resonating as the sounding sculptures, but intriguing in their own right.
Courtesy of Knoll
What do you remember about your father’s work habits from your childhood?
My father was a workaholic and his work was always top priority. When he was with us, the family, he was fully present and gave us all of his attention and love, but he often was not with us. He worked all day with a short lunch break, then came home for dinner at 5.30pm every evening. After the meal, he read a magazine or two, enjoyed a short nap, and then returned to the shop at about 9pm. If he became engrossed in a project, he sometimes worked through the night to the shock of his welding helpers who would discover him the next morning. “Harry, what are you doing here in the same clothes as yesterday? Did you stay all night?” “Oh, it’s morning already? I had no idea…”
Harry was very strong physically and was often frustrated that his workers were not as strong as he. He could tuck an anvil weighing 300 pounds under his arm and walk around the shop with it. He once asked his two assistants to move an asbestos-welding platform, probably weighing 1000 pounds, and even with ropes and prybars they could not budge it. Harry, disgusted at their incompetency, grabbed the ropes and moved it all by himself.
Bracelet, c. 1940s. Photograph courtesy the Harry Bertoia Foundation
How aware was Harry Bertoia of the Modern movement and his role in it at the time?
Harry specially ordered and read the latest art books, as well as numerous periodicals and newspapers, so was up to date on whatever art movement was happening. I doubt if he was concerned about his own position in the Modern movement, and I never heard him comment on it. He simply continued to do what he did without worry of how the world would accept or interpret it. His jewellery, which was “art to wear”, his chairs of sculptural proportions, and his toning sculptures that merged art with sound were all brand new “movements” at that time. Harry followed his heart, made manifest his creative inspirations, and created new welding techniques all without thought of how it might place him in art history. He never signed his work because he believed that his hands were merely a physical conduit for divine creativity, and why should he put one man’s name on that spiritual source?
Portrait of Harry Bertoia, courtesy of Knoll
Why do you think his furniture designs remain so popular today?
Any design that is classic and timeless endures. Note the Roman columns, or Buckingham Palace, the white shirt or the useful three legged milking stool – they all enjoy an endless appreciation that overshadows any boundaries of time or epoch. The Bertoia collection for Knoll is that way – timeless in its beauty. It was refreshingly new and different in the 1950s, and remains iconic because of the comfort, artistic lines, and how it fits in with almost any other style. When something is made with integrity, love and engineering skill, it will last.
You’ve reproduced three jewellery designs and one Sonambient sculpture – what’s the intention behind this project? Will there be additional pieces in the future?
The intention with these limited edition reproductions was to broaden the reach of Bertoia to those outside the exclusive art collector population, as well as to celebrate the centennial of Harry’s birth. We’ve kept the prices reasonable so that those who have admired Bertoia but could never afford an original might purchase one of these mementos. An original sounding sculpture the same size of our reproduction might sell for US$25,000 at auction but our table tonal sells for US$2500. Each item is made just how Harry would have made it, and these are authorised and proper.
Our decision was reinforced when I discovered a series of letters between Harry Bertoia and Kaare Bernsten of Oslo, Norway. I had already found a jeweller to construct the three chosen pieces when I stumbled upon the letters. In the handwritten documents, Kaare had encouraged Harry to come up with a number of pendants and brooches that could be reproduced in a limited edition, perhaps in gold. Harry responded with enthusiasm and made numerous samples of miniature gongs and organic shapes. Unfortunately Harry died before the project culminated. With that confirmation from the past, we have finished the project for him.
We may do a very controlled number of additional pieces, as we do not want to flood the market or cheapen the originals. We are working on a possible 18K gold pendant that will be absolutely stunning.
The reason my father was an amazing designer and artist was because he was an amazing human being. His hard-working Italian heritage, his humility and generosity and his understanding of universal law made him a man ahead of his time. I am honoured to have the role of furthering his legacy.
See more at The Harry Bertoia Foundation site
Read our Harry Bertoia buyer’s guide
Find a licensed iconic Bertoia chair design at Knoll International