Harry Bertoia

Italian American designer and artist Harry Bertoia died on 6 November 1978.  

Born in the village of San Lorenzo, in the Italian region of Friuli, in 1915, Arri (as in the original Italian form of his name) moved to the United States at 15. Living with his elder brother Oreste in Detroit, he was able to study drawing and painting at the School of the Detroit Society of Arts and at the Cranbrook Academy of Art in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan. There he crossed paths with some of the founding members of Modernism, for example Walter Gropius, the German architect who revolutionised art education by establishing the Bauhaus. In 1939 he established a metalworking and jewellery workshop at the Academy. Among other things, the workshop designed the wedding rings of Charles and Ray Eames. As the Second World War drained the country’s metal production, Bertoia turned to printmaking, experimenting with monotypes and serving as Cranbrook’s Graphics Instructor. At the same time, he met and soon married Brigitta Valentiner, daughter of Wilhelm Valentiner, Director of the Detroit Institute of Arts.

His first artworks to enter a major museum were a series of 100 prints purchased by the The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum of Non-Objective Paintings in 1943. The museum then included his work in an exhibition featuring László Moholy-Nagy and other leading contemporary artists.

Bertoia then moved to California, where he focused on ‘human design,’ what we would now call ergonomics. He experimented with both plywood and welded metal, conceiving several ‘Midcentury Modern’ designs some of which were later produced by the firm Knoll in Pennsylvania.

Knoll’s furniture ensured Boertoia’s success, enabling him to turn from commercial design to architectural sculpture and especially monumental public works. Outstanding among his public works is the altar piece he realised for the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Chapel in 1955. Two years later, a grant from Chicago’s Graham Foundation enabled him to travel back to Italy, in what would be his one and only trip to this homeland.

After his return to America Bertoia started experimenting with his distinctive ‘Sonambient pieces,’ sculptures in which the movement of metal rods of different types and colours creates musical harmonies. In collaboration with his brother Oreste, Harry produced more than hundred Sonambient pieces, which he displayed and played in barn converted into an atelier and recording studio. By this point, Bertoia had become an esteemed artist celebrated with major exhibitions at home and abroad.

Reference: Harry Bertoia Foundation

Altarpiece, MIT Chapel, Massachusetts Institute of Technology campus, Cambridge, Massachusetts. Source: WikimediaCommons.

Harry Bertoia, Diamond Chair, produced by Knoll in 1952. Musée national d’art moderne, Paris, no. AM 1993-1-655. Source: WikimediaCommons.

Sonambient piece. Source: https://www.youtube.com/embed/zS-YQ0-Rmmk

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