Portrait of Harry Bertoia, courtesy of Knoll
Unless you are very wealthy or very lucky, most of us are more likely to come across Harry Bertoia through the metal wire seating he designed for Knoll International in 1952. However the Bertoia chair was the smallest part of his oeuvre. The lion’s share of Bertoia’s work, and arguably the most important, was sculpture and it’s these that can fetch eye-popping sums of money at auction today.
MidCentury asks BBC 20th Century Expert Mark Hill about Bertoia’s iconic designs and buying them at auction.
Set of four Knoll Bertoia 420C side chairs, finished in black Rislin with vinyl upholstery. Image David Rago, Freeman’s and Miller’s.
What or who influenced the designs of Harry Bertoia’s chairs
It’s likely that Bertoia was influenced by the work of Charles and Ray Eames and Eero Saarinen, his colleagues at the academy. He is said to have contributed to the Eames’ flexible plywood chairs but was not credited for his work, which undoubtedly led to frustration. It was here, in the late 1940s, that Bertoia laid the groundwork for his seating range, both in terms of form, function and the use of ‘new’ materials.
How did Harry Bertoia come to design chairs for Knoll International?
In 1950, he was invited to Pennsylvania to work for Knoll International by his old classmate Florence Knoll and her husband Hans. He immediately set to work on progressing his experiences and devising a range that could be produced on a commercial basis, that would appeal to the developing consumerist society and that explored post-war ‘new materials’ – in this case, metal. Bertoia’s marriage of sculpture and furniture perhaps also reflects the work of Japanese-American designer Isamu Noguchi, a contemporary of his.
Knoll Bertoia Bird chair and ottoman. Image David Rago, Freeman’s and Miller’s.
What are the design characteristics of a Harry Bertoia chair?
Bertoia chairs are unique fusions of sculpture, space and industrial material. Bertoia designed both a simple grid of chrome-plated stainless steel rods and the moulds that would shape them into functional and comfortable seats with a truly innovative appearance. The rigid right angles of the grid and the legs upon which they are firmly grounded are balanced by the gentle curves of the seats themselves.
The open design of the grid gives the chairs a sense of lightness that belies their strength and durability. Bertoia said about them “If you look at these chairs, they are mainly made of air, like sculpture. Space passes right through them”. One might imagine that the rigidity of the steel rods only allows for modest comfort, but sitting in a chair, you can feel the inherent flexibility of the material. His designs are not just about appearance, Bertoia was also concerned with comfort and ergonomics, how an object can be made to work better with the human body.
What can a buyer expect to pay for a Harry Bertoia chair?
The Bertoia 420C Side chair is perhaps his most widely produced and classic piece. That, and the taller Bertoia barstool, can often be found at auction for up to £200 each depending on condition. Pricier are his more expressive designs, the Bertoia Bird chair and ottoman, and the legendary Bertoia 421 Diamond chair. The elegantly curved armrests and backs spread outward like wings and give an extra lightness to the grid design. These are often more expensive and range from mid to high hundreds of pounds, but rarely exceed £1,200.
Knoll Bertoia Diamond chair. Image David Rago, Freeman’s and Miller’s.
How important is condition when buying a vintage Harry Bertoia chair?
Naturally, condition plays a role. Collectors prize examples with their original finish and upholstery, which was typically stamped with Knoll’s name on the underside, and this can add desirability and so value. The durable nature of Bertoia’s seating meant that many buyers left them outside. Weather has often taken its toll on both condition and value. Always examine a chair for re-welded parts, and any black or white finish should be unbroken and unstained.
Did Harry Bertoia ever use wood in his designs?
Bertoia only ever used wood for one design. His oak or American walnut slatted 400R bench with wire legs and supports takes minimalism to new heights. Although it would work well in a Manhattan loft apartment today, the long, low lines and juxtaposition of wood and metal rods are perhaps more akin to low slung mid-century Californian homes, such as those designed by Richard Neutra and John Lautner in Palm Springs. In great condition, prices of mid to high hundreds of pounds are not unusual.
How easy is it to find a Harry Bertoia chair today?
Bertoia’s designs are still produced under license by Knoll today. Vintage examples can be less expensive, though buyers should avoid unlicensed look-alikes at all costs.
Bertoia ‘V’ sculpture, gilded bronze rods on a circular bronze base, 20cm high, £4,000- 6,000. Image David Rago, Freeman’s and Miller’s.
When did Harry Bertoia start working on sculptures?
The global success of Bertoia’s 1952 seating range led to Knoll giving the designer a lump sum for the rights in addition to paying him for his work. This allowed Bertoia to buy his Pennsylvanian farmhouse home and workshop and gave him the freedom to explore and develop his first love – sculpture.
How would you describe Harry Bertoia sculptures?
At first glance Bertoia sculptures look otherworldly, like sub-marine corals or frondy plants from another planet. Built from wire rods, panels, gongs and bars, Bertoia’s sculptures vary from looking like stylised weeping willows to simple columns; they often echo jewellery design of the time. Although he is said to have produced tens of thousands of sculptures throughout his lifetime, they are largely hard to find, highly desirable and typically very valuable.
Bertoia Bush sculpture, bronze and copper, 28cm diameter, £10,000- 15,000. Image David Rago, Freeman’s and Miller’s.
What inspired Harry Bertoia’s sculpture designs?
According to his daughter, Bertoia was both fascinated and influenced by nature, which he studied closely. Although random, nature generates a strangely comfortable symmetry, and his ‘Bush’ sculptures of the 1960s and 1970s, with their tightly packed, tiny and carefully welded branches, explore this. Think of gazing at the branches of an oak tree on a summer’s day. The longer you look at them, the more there is to see and one can easily become lost in their complex structures.
Is it true that Harry Bertoia intended his sculptures to create sounds?
Yes, Bertoia’s sculptures hide a secret. Apart from the optical effect created by the wires, which move when passed by or touched, they generate sounds. Tones vary depending on the length, thickness and type of metal. Bertoia called them ‘Sonambient’ for the organic, peaceful tones they generated. As well as holding concerts, he recorded ten albums of their unique music. Esoteric and way-out-there, their vibe is typical of the 1960s and 1970s.
Bertoia Gong sculpture, silicon and bronze, 276cm high, £150,000-200,000. Image David Rago, Freeman’s and Miller’s.
What can a buyer expect to pay for a Harry Bertoia sculpture?
Values of Bertoia’s ‘Bush’ sculptures depend on size, complexity and condition, and these typically range from around £3,000 to over £30,000. Recently an exceptional example measuring 54.5cm (21.5in) high fetched $93,500 at Christie’s in New York. Bertoia’s sound sculptures can fetch truly staggering prices, generally starting at around £15,000-20,000 and rising to over £60,000. A few important, extra-large pieces, or those from notable collections, have fetched over half a million dollars. Unlike his furniture, which is sold globally, the market for his sculptures is firmly in the US, at auction houses such as Christie’s and David Rago.
Bertois Willow sculpture, stainless steel rods on a steel base, 244cm high, £30,000-40,000. Image David Rago, Freeman’s and Miller’s.
Harry Bertoia: a potted history
Harry Bertoia was born in 1915 in Italy and went to America aged 15 to visit his brother in Detroit. He stayed there, studying art and design and learning to make jewellery by hand, perhaps the source of his skills in metalwork. Harry Bertoia’s talents led to a scholarship to study at the influential Cranbrook Academy of Art in Michigan, where he worked with Walter Gropius, Charles and Ray Eames, Eero Saarinen and Isamu Noguchi among others. Whilst opening a workshop and teaching metalwork and jewellery, Harry Bertoia remained with the Eames’, working under them at the Moulded Plywood Division of Evans Product Company from 1943-45. In the late 1940s, he learnt how to weld and used these skills to make sculpture. In 1950 he moved to Pennsylvania and produced designs for Knoll International; following the financial success of his furniture designs, Harry Bertoia once again focused on creating sculptures, continuing to produce them until his death in 1978.
Find a licensed iconic Bertoia chair design at Knoll International
To hear a sample of Bertoia’s sound (Sonambient) sculptures, go to harrybertoia.org
Keeping an eye on dealers listed in our Directory – we’ve seen plenty of vintage Bertoia chairs for sale here over the years!
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