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Harry Bertoia

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Arieto (Harry) Bertoia was born in the Italian village San Lorenzo di Arlene in 1915. At the age of 15 he emigrated with his family to the United States, where he studied at Cass Technical High School, Detroit (1932-36) and then at the Detroit School of Arts and Crafts.

He continued his art education at the Cranbrook Academy of Art (1937-39) Bloomfield, Michigan under teacher Eliel Saarinen staying on to teach jewellery and metalworking for a further four years in the metal workshop he had established.

Between 1943-46 he worked with Charles and Ray Eames at the ‘Evans Products Company’ in California helping refine folded plywood technology used for airplanes and medical equipment associated with the war effort. He later went on to work with the Eames at ‘Plyform Plywood Products’ in Venice, California but left on bad terms in 1950 after they used his pioneering metal basketwork seat design without acknowledging him as a contributing source.

Later that year he was contacted by an old Cranbrook colleague friend, none other than Florence Knoll, who had started her own contemporary furniture business a few years earlier in 1938. She was keen for Bertoia to move from the East coast to join her in Pennsylvania and try his hand at furniture design. He however saw himself as a sculpture, an artist, perhaps above commercial success, certainly happy to live as a struggling artist but with his integrity intact and rejected the offer. Knoll called again and this time spoke to Bertoia’s wife, explaining that he would have his own studio. He would have no manager. He would be left to his own devices with no time restrictions. He would be paid a salary, would receive his share of any royalties but best of all there was no expectation to produce anything. Without pause she agreed on his behalf!

And thank goodness she did! For three years he tinkered without commercial pressure before developing his hand welded metal basketwork technique to produce the famous wire range including the ‘Diamond chair’ 1953, the ‘Pivoting Bird chair’, ‘Large Diamond chair’, ‘Side chair’, ‘Ottoman’ as well as smaller versions for children. It was the one and only furniture range Bertoia designed. Sculpturally beautiful, as you would expect from a Cranbrook jeweller, and anatomically correct. The range is still produced by Knoll, still hand welded and finished. Each a piece of art in its own right.

Owing to the success of his one range of furniture and with the royalties rolling in, from the mid-1950’s Bertoia was able to concentrate on his sculptural practice, producing abstract metal sculptures that moved in the wind and sometimes produced sound.

Towards the end of his career Bertoia enjoyed great commercial success as a sculptor. Eero Saarinen often used Bertoia’s sculptures prominently in his buildings and today they sell for hundreds of thousands if not millions of dollars. In that light his wire chairs for Knoll are a snip and with the added bonus of being functional as well as beautiful.

 

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