At the age of 15 he traveled from Italy to Detroit to visit his older brother, however he chose to stay and enrolled in Cass Technical High School, where he studied art and design and learned the art of handmade jewelry making. In 1938 he attended the Art School of the Detroit Society of Arts and Crafts, now known as the College for Creative Studies. The following year in 1937 he received a scholarship to study at the Cranbrook Academy of Art where he encountered Walter Gropius, Edmund N. Bacon and Ray and Charles Eames for the first time. Opening his own metal workshop in 1939 he taught jewelry design and metal work.
Later, as the war effort made metal a rare and very expensive commodity he began to focus his efforts on jewelry making, even designing and creating wedding rings for Charles and Ray Eames and Edmund Bacon's wife Ruth. Later in 1943, he married Brigitta Valentiner, and moved to California to work with Charles and Ray for the Evans Product Company. Evans provided technical work for airplane and medical equipment. Bertoia was also drawing training manuals.
At this point they began to experiment with molded plywood under the auspices of their Plyformed Products Company, which was later bought out by Evans. With Eero Saarinen they developed a method for making molded plywood splints that would later evolve into processes for designing furniture. Bertoia remained as part of their staff, working on a variety of projects. He is informally credited with creating the metal spine/leg structure of the Eames Plywood Dining & Lounge chairs (DCM/LCM) Three years later he split with the Eames, concerned that his work was not receiving due credit, and preferring to work with metal rather than wood.
In the same year he finally became a US citizen. In 1950, he moved to Pennsylvania, to establish a studio, and to work with Hans and Florence Knoll. (Florence was also a Cranbrook Graduate). During this period he designed five wire pieces that became known as the Bertoia Collection for Knoll. Among them the famous 'Diamond chair' a fluid, sculptural form made from a molded lattice work of welded steel. In Bertoia's own words, "If you look at these chairs, they are mainly made of air, like sculpture.
Space passes right through them." They were produced with varying degrees of upholstery over their light grid-work, and they were handmade because a suitable mass production process could not be found. Unfortunately, the chair edge utilized two thin wires welded on either side of the mesh seat. This design had been granted a patent to the Eames for the wire chair produced by Herman Miller. Herman Miller took Knoll to court on the grounds that they were taking wrongful credit for a bent-wire technique owned by the Eames.
Herman Miller eventually won and Bertoia & Knoll redesigned the seat edge, using a thicker, single wire, and grinding down the edge of the seat wires at a smooth angle - the same way the chairs are produced today. However, knowing that the Eames and Bertoia worked closely for so long, the "genealogy" of inspiration seems difficult and maybe even unnecessary to pin down. Nonetheless, the commercial success enjoyed by Bertoia's diamond chair was immediate and in the mid-50's the chairs, being produced by Knoll, sold so well, that the royalties he received for them allowed him to devote himself exclusively to sculpture. In 1957 he was a fellow at the Graham Foundation in Chicago. The sculptural work that he produced on his own explored the ways in which metal could be manipulated to produce sound.
By stretching and bending the metal, he made it respond to wind or to touch, creating different tones. He performed with the pieces in a number of concerts and even produced a series of nine albums, all entitled "Sonambient", of the music made by his art, manipulated by his hands along with the elements of nature. In the late 1990s his daughter found a large collection of NM condition original albums stored away in one of the barns that he used as studio space on his property in Pennsylvania. These were sold as collector's items and fetched large sums, and four of the pieces, culled from three of the records were reissued by a Japanese record label called "P.S.F. Records" entitled "Unfolding" after the names of one of the tracks on catalog #F/W 1024, which also had a track each from F/W #1025 and F/W #1032. The Addison Gallery of American Art (Andover, Massachusetts), the Brooklyn Museum (New York City), the Cleveland Museum of Art, the Detroit Institute of Arts, the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden (Washington D.C.), the Honolulu Academy of Arts, the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art (Kansas City, Missouri), the Nasher Sculpture Center (Dallas, Texas), the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Reading Public Museum (Reading, Pennsylvania)], the Smithsonian American Art Museum (Washington D.C.), the Vero Beach Museum of Art (Vero Beach, Florida), and the Walker Art Center (Minneapolis, Minnesota) are among the public collections holding work by Harry Bertoia.
His "Sunburst Sculpture" owned by the Joslyn Art Museum was originally installed in the Joslyn's Fountain Court. It is now located in the lobby of the Milton R. Abrahams Branch of the Omaha Public Library. His "Sounding Sculpture" can be found in the plaza of The Aon Center, Chicago's second tallest building.
Another "Sounding Sculpture", considerably smaller than the one mentioned above, is featured in the Rose Terrace of the Chicago Botanic Garden, and a third very similar to the piece in Chicago called "Sounding Piece" was until 2003 on display at the Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. As explained in October3, 1995 piece in the weekly "Dear Uncle Ezra" column of the university newspaper: Dear Uncle Ezra, What is that sound coming from the Johnson Museum? It's a pingy type sound that I guess could be some kind of wind chime but it seems like it's coming from the building itself. — Just wondering Dear Chiming In, Well, it almost is coming from the building itself. What you hear is "Sounding Piece", a sculpture by Harry Bertoia that permanently resides on the sculpture court (outdoor balcony) on the second floor of the Johnson Museum.
The chimes sway back and forth on tall rods and "ping" or "gong" into each other (depending on which chime and how hard they collide) when winds move them. It's one of my all-time favorites, well worth a visit if you haven't seen it. You can go out on to the sculpture court until at least the end of October. Once winter sets in, the chimes are secured so that they won't snap in the windy, icy weather. Uncle Ezra Read more on Last.fm.
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