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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 for Charles and Ray at the Molded Plywood Division of the Evans Product Company. He worked for them until the war ended in September 1945.
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 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. Nonetheless, the commercial success enjoyed by Bertoia's diamond chair was immediate.
In the mid-50's the chairs being produced by Knoll sold so well, that the lump sum arrangement 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 ten 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 near mint 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 Dallas Public Library, the Detroit Institute of Arts, the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden (Washington D.C.), the Honolulu Museum of Art, 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)], Milwaukee art museum, 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.
Bertoia's "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. Lord Palumbo owns several Bertoia works which are on display at Kentuck Knob. Bertoia's "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 October 3, 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.
The sculpture was taken off view after it was damaged in a storm in 2003 .
Bertoia was the sculptor commissioned to create the Marshall University fountain in Huntington, West Virginia, to honor the university's football team in the wake of the plane crash that killed them on November 14, 1970. For more information on the disaster, see Marshall University air disaster.
The 1954 Gordon Bunshaft building for Manufacturer's Hanover Trust-now JPMorgan Chase (510 Fifth Avenue at West 43rd Street, New York City) included a full building-width, second-floor screen-sculpture by Bertoia. It was dismantled and removed in 2010 by J. P. Morgan Chase.
The 'Golden Sun' was commissioned in 1967 for The Whiting, an auditorium in Flint, Michigan. Seven feet in diameter, the spherical sculpture consists of 675 gold-plated stainless steel branches and hangs in the building's lobby.
He had a son and two daughters, a grandson and two granddaughters (one died young), and three great grandchildren so far. Some members of the subsequent two generations are engaged in artistic endeavors. He died of lung cancer at the age of 63 on November 6, 1978. His wife Brigitta Valentiner died in 2007, aged 87.
- The City Review - 510 Fifth Avenue
- New York Times - Sculpture Dismantled
- The Whiting Official Website
- Harry Bertoia: Sculptor (1970), June Kompass Nelson, Wayne State University Press, ISBN 0-8143-1402-3
- Harry Bertoia, Printmaker: Monotypes and Other Monographics (1989), June Kompass Nelson, Wayne State University Press, ISBN 0-8143-2063-5
- The World of Bertoia (2003), Nancy N. Schiffer and Val O. Bertoia, Schiffer Publishing, ISBN 0-7643-1798-9
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Harry Bertoia.|
- Bertoia Family Estate
- Bertoia Studio
- Marshall University Air Disaster Memorial Site (Harry Bertoia)
- ArtCycloPedia.Com (Harry Bertoia Online)
- Harry Bertoia Research Project
- Harry Bertoia's Birthplace
- Harry Bertoia at Find a Grave