Harry Bertoia was born in Italy and followed an older brother to Detroit, Michigan in 1930. At Cass Technical High School, Bertoia trained in art, design, and jewelry making. He also spent time at the Art School of the Detroit Society of Arts and Crafts (later renamed the College for Creative Studies). In 1937, Bertoia received a scholarship to study at the Cranbrook Academy of Art, where he met Walter Gropius, Florence Knoll, Eero Saarinen, and Charles and Ray Eames. Bertoia taught both jewelry design and metalwork at Cranbrook, exploring ideas that would eventually appear in his sculpture.
During World War II, Bertoia married Brigitta Valentiner and soon the couple moved to Venice, California, where Bertoia worked with Charles and Ray Eames at the Evans Products Company to develop new techniques for molding plywood. While in California, Bertoia learned welding at Santa Monica City College. In 1949, he was invited to work with Florence and Hans Knoll. Bertoia’s collaboration with Knoll was memorable. His steel wire furniture designs became very popular, especially the Diamond Chair, which repurposed an industrial material into a gracefully sculpted form. By the middle of the 1950s, Bertoia’s furniture line proved lucrative enough for him to focus exclusively on sculpture.
Sculpting a Legacy
In the years that followed, Bertoia created more than 50 pieces of public sculpture. During the 1960s, Bertoia added the element of sound in his “Sonambient” sculptures with vertical rods that generate various tones as they collide. He even recorded a series of albums featuring music produced by his “Sonambient” sculptures. Bertoia passed away at age 63 due to lung cancer in 1978, leaving behind his wife, two daughters, and a son, Val, who now makes his own “Sonambient” sculptures. Today Harry Bertoia’s work is part of the collections of several museums, including the Detroit Institute of Art, the Brooklyn Museum in New York City, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Milwaukee Art Museum, the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington D.C., and many others.
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