Harry Bertoia left a rich legacy of art & design — learn more about his life & influences:
Arri Bertoia was born on March 10, 1915, in the small village of San Lorenzo, Friuli, Italy, about 50 miles north of Venice and 70 miles south of Austria. He had one brother, Oreste, and one sister, Ave. Another sister, Ada, died at eighteen months old; she was the subject of one of his first paintings. Ave insisted her brother preferred to draw over doing his chores.
As a youngster, the local brides would ask him to design their wedding day linen embroidery patterns, as his talents were already recognized. He attended school in nearby Arzene, Carsara, until grade 5. An art teacher from a neighboring town proffered a few drawing lessons, but soon told his parents that Harry was too talented for him to teach him anything else. He suggested further training in art, perhaps in Venice or maybe America? Harry, at age 15, was presented with a daunting decision.
Move to America in 1930
In 1930 Harry chose to move to Detroit where his brother Oreste was already established. Upon entering North America, his nickname of Arieto (little Arri) was altered to the Americanized Harry. He had to learn English and history at the Davison Americanization School. Other lessons, many by trial and error, involved using public transport, learning advanced math and munching on hamburgers.
Bertoia attended Cleveland Elementary School to catch up in basics. He then entered Cass Technical High School, a public school with a special program for talented students in arts and sciences. In 1936, a one-year scholarship to the School of the Detroit Society of Arts and Crafts allowed him to study painting and drawing. He entered and placed in many local art competitions, said to be the most awarded student up until that time.
Cranbrook Academy of Art: 1937-1943
By the fall of 1937, another scholarship entitled him to become a student, again of painting, at the Cranbrook Academy of Art in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan. Cranbrook was, at the time, an eclectic melting pot of creativity attracting many famous artists and designers: Carl Milles, resident-sculptor, Maija Grotell, resident-ceramist, Walter Gropius, visiting Bauhaus-architect, the Saarinen family and others. Students did not receive a degree; rather they discovered their passion. This residency at Cranbrook was a momentous turning point in Harry’s life and career.
In 1939, Eliel Saarinen, Director of the art community, asked Bertoia, age 24, to re-open the metalworking shop. With the war-time need for metals, Bertoia was forced to concentrate on jewelry, which did not use much metal. He shared jewelry with his friends at Cranbrook and made wedding rings for Ray Eames and Ruth Bacon. The organic shapes and fine detail of the jewelry later evolved into the early sculpture forms. He was part of the “art to wear” movement.
Harry continued an after-hour activity he had begun as a student, experimenting and producing one-of-a-kind prints and drawings known as monotypes. The monotypes of the 1940s are considered some of his most imaginative graphics. His last year at Cranbrook in 1943 was spent as their graphics instructor (metal supplies had completely vanished by that time due to World War II demands).
Fellows students at Cranbrook – Florence Schust (Knoll), Charles Eames and Eero Saarinen – were extremely influential to Bertoia’s life in later years. In 1940, Harry met Brigitta Valentiner, the daughter of Wilhelm Valentiner, Director of the Detroit Institute of Arts and the foremost expert on Rembrandt in the U.S. Brigitta pursued him relentlessly, and ultimately he and Brigitta were married on May 10, 1943. Wilhelm Valentiner introduced his son-in-law to such modern talents as Paul Klee, Wassily Kandinsky, and Joan Miró, which had a profound effect on Harry.
While at Cranbrook, Harry Bertoia sent about 100 prints to The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum of Non-Objective Paintings for evaluation. To his amazement, Hilla Rebay, the acquisitions director, asked to purchase all 100 prints. She bought some for herself and some for the museum for about $1000. In 1943, 19 of those prints were exhibited by the Solomon Guggenheim Foundation. Harry had the most works by a single artist in that show, which included works by Moholy-Nagy, Werner Drewes and Charles Smith. Supported by a stipend from Karl Nierendorf of Nierendorf Gallery in New York, Harry continued to hold exhibits of jewelry and drawings. Harry designed several sleek tea sets; one for Eliel Saarinen, which is in the Cranbrook permanent collection, and another is displayed at the Detroit Institute of Art.
“I am rather silent, resolute and industrious. I can use any tool or machinery with dexterity.”
– HARRY BERTOIA, AGE 21, APPLICATION TO CRANBROOK
“You go through these emotions – joy, suffering, happiness, sorrow – and if you happen to have a bit of metal in your hands – you just shape it.”
– HARRY BERTOIA
In 1943, Bertoia departed from Cranbrook to join Charles Eames in California to pursue ongoing experimental work on molded plywood. The plywood work stemmed from a continuation of the Eames/Saarinen Cranbrook chair design that won the Museum of Modern Art organic furniture design competition. The award winning chair could not yet be successfully mass produced, so the mission was to find a way in which to do so.
Prior to the chair research, Harry contributed to the war effort making airplane parts manufactured by Evans Products Co, where Eames was director of Research & Development. The Eameses sent Harry to a welding class in Santa Monica where he learned the skill that would carry him through life. Harry’s innovative chair solutions made production of the chair possible and were adopted by Eames with no credit attributed to Bertoia. In frustration, Bertoia moved on in 1946.
Harry spent two years in La Jolla, at Point Loma Naval Electrical Lab, where he worked on a project involving human engineering (we now call it ergonomics, although the word had not yet been invented) and stroboscopic photography designed to evaluate equipment. In his spare time, Harry was involved with the Allied Craftsmen of the area. La Jolla is where he began making metal sculptures after hours, while continuing to create the monoprint drawings. In 1945, Harry held a show of his monotypes at the San Francisco Museum of Art. He became an American citizen in 1946. His daughter Lesta and son Val were both born in California. While struggling to do his art on the side, Harry longed to have the space and time to put his creativity to good use. That opportunity soon came from an old school pal from Cranbrook.
Early years in Pennsylvania 1950-1960
In 1950, at the invitation of Hans and Florence Knoll of Knoll, Inc., Harry moved to eastern Pennsylvania with his growing family. Florence Knoll had seen his work at Cranbrook, heard he left Eames, and suspected he had more furniture ideas inside. They offered him free rein to design what he wished with full credit and complete recognition of his work, which was their policy with all designers. The Bertoia chair collection was introduced in 1952 by Knoll.
Bertoia also designed the jigs for the production of the items. Harry set up shop in Bally in an old leaky garage building that was acquired by Knoll. The chair became part of the “modern” furniture movement of the 1950s, later referred to as Midcentury Modern. In the span of a couple of years, Bertoia completed several chair designs for Knoll. They compensated him generously for his wildly popular work, enabling Bertoia to put a down payment on the Barto farmhouse he had been renting, as well as the shop in Bally. Daughter Celia was born in Pennsylvania. The 1750’s rural stone farmhouse and the shop are still in the family.
The first architectural sculpture commission that Harry earned was in 1953 for the General Motors Technical Center, thanks to architect and Cranbrook pal Eero Saarinen. This set him on a path of highly successful monumental public works, of which he completed over 50.
Also commissioned by Eero Saarinen was the altar piece in the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Chapel, created in 1955. This is one of the most striking sculptures by Harry Bertoia.
In 1957, Harry received a grant from Chicago’s Graham Foundation, affording him the opportunity to return to Italy for the first time since his emigration in 1930. He visited relatives and most of the great Italian museums, reveling in the travels. He never managed to return to Italy again, although he fervently wished to do so.
During this period he began earning prestigious awards, which would continue for the rest of his life. The first European exhibit of his sculptural work was at the US Pavilion of the 1958 Brussels World’s Fair, alongside Alexander Calder.
In 1956 the Fairweather Hardin Gallery of Chicago began to display Harry’s work and continued to do so for decades. 1959 was the start of Harry’s affiliation with the Staempfli Gallery in New York. Each Staempfli exhibition boasted beautiful color brochures.
Knoll also had a continuing warm relationship with Harry, and often displayed and sold his sculptures in their showrooms. Wire landscapes, panel screens, and bundled wire came to life around that time.
Sonambient, Bushes, Dandelions 1960-1969
In 1960, Harry Bertoia began the exploration of tonal sculptures. The “tonal”, or sounding sculpture, is the art that is most often associated with Harry Bertoia. Their sizes vary from a few inches all the way up to twenty feet tall. Many metals were used for the rods, the most common being beryllium copper known for its wide range of color variations and rich tones. Some rods are capped with cylinders or drops of metal, resembling cattails, which, by their weight, accentuate the swaying of the tonal rods and creating deep resonant tones. Harry and his brother Oreste both loved music and spent endless hours experimenting and finding new sounds to incorporate into Sonambient, the auditory and visual environment created by the tonals.
Harry set up his remodeled barn in 1968-1969 to hold his special collection of 100+ tonal sculptures and act as a sound recording studio. He gave small concerts to lucky visitors and close friends. Bertoia recorded 11 albums of the haunting sounds of sculpture known as Sonambient during his lifetime beginning in 1970. It is these original Sonambient (Harry’s coined and registered term) albums that were re-issued in 2016 as a box set by Important Records. Three major documentaries featuring the barn and other pieces were released about Bertoia. One of these films was made by Clifford West, a colleague from Cranbrook, another by Jeffrey Eger, a budding film maker, and a more recent video in 2008 produced by Videe, an Italian company. The Sonambient Barn collection remained intact until the summer of 2016 when family decisions allowed some of the sculptures to find a home in an American museum (not yet determined) to increase access, security and longevity. It is what visionary Harry desired for his tonals.
An unrelated branch of sculpture experimentation was the dandelion form, which brings to mind a dandelion flower gone to seed. The first rough sunbursts arose around 1957 but developed into the more refined dandelions by the 60s. The bush and tree style sculpture also took shape at the same time. The 1964 New York World’s Fair Kodak building displayed seven gold-plated dandelions in a fountain. Hundreds of carefully welded thin rods around a center orb became a spectacle of shiny wonder. These created quite a stir and are still extremely popular, fetching some of the highest auction prices of all Bertoia sculptures.
From 1953 to 1978 Harry Bertoia crafted numerous large sculptural commissions. Harry Bertoia made over 50 public sculptures of all types, which are on display in cities throughout the United States as well as abroad. Harry Bertoia was hired and admired by the greatest architects of the time, including Eero Saarinen, Henry Dreyfuss, Roche & Dinkeloo, Minoru Yamasaki, Edward Durell Stone and I M Pei.
The Last Years, 1970-1978
In 1971, Muhlenberg College of Allentown, PA, paid tribute to Harry with an Honorary Doctorate degree in Fine Arts. The Allentown Art Museum, close to his home, showed their respect of Bertoia’s work with exhibits both during his lifetime and since. Bertoia has been honored by local admirers near his residence in Pennsylvania as well as collectors all over the world. Lehigh University of Bethlehem, PA, also honored Harry with an honorary degree. Appreciation showered upon Bertoia in his last decade.
Bertoia was selected to do the memorial piece for the Marshall University football team in Huntington, WV, in 1972. The 2006 movie, We Are Marshall, outlines the tragic plane crash. The 6500 pound 13’ high sculpture commemorates the 75 lives taken. Sculptures at airports, banks, and universities sprang up during this time, as well as numerous one-man shows all over the country, and world.
Two large exhibitions were well received in Oslo, Norway, but a tragic fire destroyed several large sculptures as well as numerous monoprints. Bertoia was deeply saddened by the loss, especially of the monoprints. A successful show in Caracas, Venezuela received rave reviews. Bertoia was compelled to turn down many architectural jobs and museum shows because he was simply too busy.
Learning of the dismal diagnosis of cancer in 1976 caused Bertoia to work furiously on organizing his monotypes, perfecting the tonal barn collection, and putting his life’s work in order. He had produced probably tens of thousands of pieces of art during his short life. His work had consumed most of his time, much of his passion, and ultimately all of his energy. The toxic fumes such as from the beryllium copper he so loved contributed to the lung cancer. Yet, his death was peaceful, he felt complete, and he accepted dying as simply one more transitional part of life. Harry Bertoia died at age 63 on November 6th, 1978 in his home.
After his death, his wife Brigitta, his son Val, and his daughter Lesta continued the musical barn concert tradition begun by Harry. His wife Brigitta died in 2007 shortly after her 87th birthday. His children Val and Lesta are artists in their own right, while daughter Celia has taken over the directing of the Harry Bertoia Foundation and also wrote his biography. The studio in Bally, PA, is still used today by Val Bertoia, his son, who is a sculptor and inventor. Harry Bertoia is buried behind the Sonambient Barn under a huge 1-ton 10’ Bertoia gong.
“The urge for good design is the same as the urge to go on living. The assumption is that somewhere, hidden, is a better way of doing things.”
– HARRY BERTOIA