Bertoia at 100 – From Ari to Arieto to Harry

Bertoia at 100 – From Ari to Arieto to Harry

Bertoia in his studio in Bally, Pennsylvania, surrounded by his works - 1976

Bertoia in his studio in Bally, Pennsylvania, surrounded by his works – 1976

The late industrial designer and sculptor Harry Bertoia was the ultimate creative polymath, the quintessential designer-craftsman, a complete and gifted artist.

He made a reputation for himself in every field he entered. He was an innovator, he was passionate about his work, he was modest, and above all he was generous.

Harry Bertoia embodied all that is praiseworthy in an artist. ” Art was his sole focus and mission in life. ”

Working with wire, metal, plywood, the designer used ” the line ” as his muse

Bertoia portrait

Harry Bertoia in 1952 ( aged 37 )

Harry was a metal man. When Harry was making furniture, he was making metal comfortable for the human body. When Harry was making sound sculpture, he was making metal comfortable for the human mind.


A Movie about Harry Bertoia, made in 1965  by Clifford ( Bud ) West

( Bud was Harry’s Cranbrook friend and the best man at Harry’s wedding in 1942 )

bertoia pipe

From a cinemagraphic and sound perspective, this is West’s most progressive film, as abstract in filmmaking technique as the sculptures themselves.

Opening with the camera slowly moving over what appears to be the surface of the moon, it suddenly falls back to reveal instead the texture of a sculpture.

The film is one of constant motion, resulting from the vertiginous movements of West’s camera, or the movement built into the sculptures themselves.

The music, played by Bertoia, utilizing various objects alternately hammering or caressing his sculptures.

The Italian-born, Pennsylvania-based artist designed a collection of iconic wire chairs for Knoll, completed over 50 public sculptures, created intricate jewellery pieces (including Ray Eames’ wedding ring) , and even dabbed in experimental sound art.

His most celebrated furniture design is probably the sculptural diamond chair, which he designed from wire for Knoll in 1952

beroia chairs and saarinen tables


Bertoia at 100

“Confidence in oneself requires rebelliousness as a vehicle for expression to allow the mind to operate intelligently. Confidence comes when you know how to think things out for yourself.” ……… Harry Bertoia

bertoia in bally

On Wednesday, March 18, 2015, Knoll marked the 100th anniversary of Harry Bertoia’s birthday with a presentation by Glenn Adamson, the Nanette L. Laitman Director of Museum of Arts and Design, at the Knoll New York Showroom.

Members of the art, design and architecture community gathered at the midtown office to celebrate the jewellery, sculptures, mono prints and furniture of Harry Bertoia

Bertoia was everything all at once –not just the ability to think about design, meditate on form, envision what the future might look like — but actually to deliver it with their hands” Adamson said at the event.


Bertoia excelled at “bringing a line alive,” said Glenn Adamson

“He only had one or two ideas, but they were powerful ideas. Josef Albers had color, for Eames it was the compound curve, Jonathan Ive is all about corners. For Harry Bertoia, it was the idea of the line and variation across mediums.”

Click here to watch excerpts of Adamson’s presentation.


About Harry Bertoia

bertoia signature


Key Dates

harry bertoia

Born in San Lorenzo, Pordenone, Italy March 10, 1915

Maried Brigitta Valentiner in 1942

He became an American citizen in 1946.

Daughter ( Mara) Lesta ( 25th august, 1944 ) was born in California

Son Val Odey ( 27th June, 1949 ) was born in California.

Youngest daughter Celia ( 4th January, 1955 ) was born in Pennsylvania

Died in Barto Pennsylvania, USA  November 6, 1978



harry in his barto pennsylvania studio 1950



san lorenzo 1915


Ari Bertoia was born on March 10, 1915, in the small village of San Lorenzo, Pordenone, Italy

He was called Arieto ( meaning little Ari )

maria musso harrys mother

His Mother was Maria ( Mussio ) Bertoia

Mussio family Above from left Alice, Irene, Caterina, Maria (Harry's mother), Grazia and Celeste Mussio

Mussio family Above from left Alice, Irene, Caterina, Maria (Harry’s mother), Grazia and Celeste Mussio

guiseppe bertoia

guiseppe bertoia

His father was Guiseppe Bertoia, a miner and labourer.

san lorenzo

The house where the young Arieto (Harry) Bertoia spent his chidhood is located in San Lorenzo d’Arzene, via Blata 12, province of Pordenone, northern Italy, about 50 miles north of Venice and 70 miles south of Austria.

It is a small village of about 400 inhabitants.

san lorenzo

arieto bertoia cover 1987

The Bertoia family house, which is privately owned, has been miraculously preserved from any “improvement”, and thus remains a unique time capsule to witness the ambience where Arieto Bertoia spent his early life

Here amidst the nature, his forms and his sounds which were so decisive in his spiritual and artistic development.

In its current form it was built at the end of the 18th century, most probably on 17th century foundations.

Like most old dwellings in the village the walls are made of cobblestone, and the building is part of a houses row which extend all along the road.

san lorenzo bertoia home 1


The North-facing front offered to the road has three rows of windows, marking the three levels (day living, sleeping, granary). Access inside is through a large double door, which in the old days was used to carry huge cartloads of hay inside the yard.

The front, constantly exposed to the sun, faces a large yard, at the end of which lies a barn with a stable, which certainly was of inspiration for Harry Bertoia when designing his own barn in Barto, Pennsylvania



harry bertoia class at san lorenzo italy 1920

harry bertoia class at san lorenzo italy 1920 ( age 5 )

Maria Mussio Bertoia with her children, c 1923. From left Arieto (8 years), Maria (32 years old), Oreste (15 years) and Ave (3 years)

Maria Mussio Bertoia’s  1922.  From left Arieto (8 years), Maria (32 years old), Oreste (15 years) and Ave (3 years)

Another sister died at eighteen months old

harry and ave

Even as a youngster, the local brides would ask him to design their wedding day linen embroidery patterns, as his talents were already recognized.

Bertoia’s early exposure to metalworking can be traced back to his childhood in San Lorenzo, Italy, where he was taken by the bracelets and bangles forged by the gypsies who camped out on the border of his hometown.

san lorenzo 1927

san lorenzo 1927

wheat harvest 1930s

harry and family during wheat harvest in san lorenzo 1930s

harry early drawing at school

He attended high school in Arzene, Carsara, until age 15.

An art teacher from a neighboring town proffered a few lessons, but soon told his parents that Harry was too talented for him to teach him anything else.

maria musso 1930 at san lorenzo

Harry’s mother Maria Mussio at home in San Lorenzo, in 1930

In 1930, at the age of 15, Harry was given the choice to stay in the depression and drought ridden Italy or escape Mussolini’s emerging fascism and go and stay with his older brother in Detroit, Michigan USA

Harry chose to adventure to America and live with Oreste ( who had been in America for 5 years prior )

In 1930 he accompanied his father Giuseppe to visit Oreste.

First they went to Canada and then to Detroit

ariesto on ship from genoa to usa june 13th 1930


Upon entering North America, his birth name Ari, which often morphed into the nickname Arieto ( = “little Harry” in Italian ) was altered to the Americanised “Harry.”

Bertoia’s father returned to Italy shortly after the move to Detroit,  and was killed in W.W.II.

harry (r) and his brother oreste 1935

harry (r) and his brother oreste (l) 1935

my career booklet

Two years later, struggling to assimilate as a student at the Elizabeth Cleveland Intermediate High School in Detroit, he made this list of personal attributes as part of an illustrated booklet titled My Career.

This is an illustrated booklet written when Bertoia was 17 years old and a student in Gladys Little’s careers information class

Though Bertoia is hard on himself — only scoring “excellent” in health, neatness, and accuracy — in My Career he states his claim to be an artist.

bertoia self review card 1932

bertoia self review card 1932

After some difficulty learning the bus timetable and the English language, Bertoia stayed in Detroit and attended Cass Technical High School, a public school with a special program for talented students in arts and sciences.

Cass Technical High School Detroit Michigan

Cass Technical High School Detroit Michigan

There he participated in a program with gifted students from 1932 to 1936 and studied art and design and learned the skill of handmade jewellery making.

Bertoia followed his childhood interest in drawing and painting.

He received his first metals training at Cass as well.


year book portrait

harry and oreste in 1935

harry and oreste in 1935

In 1936 he received a one-year scholarship to the Art School of the Detroit Society of Arts and Crafts allowed him to study painting and drawing.

Detroit Society of Arts & Crafts. Detroit. Demolished in 2005 after a long period of fires and general decay.

Detroit Society of Arts & Crafts. Detroit. Demolished in 2005 after a long period of fires and general decay.

He entered and placed in many local art competitions.

wash day print 1936 by harry bertoia

wash day print 1936 by harry bertoia


Cranbrook Academy of Art 1937-1943

cranbrook 2

The Academy of Art was founded by George Gough Booth and Finnish architect Eliel Saarinen in 1932.

From the beginning, the foundation was built using the latest ideals in art and architecture.

cranbrook academy 1940

cranbrook academy 1940

By the fall of 1937, another scholarship entitled him to become a student of painting and drawing, at the Cranbrook Academy of Art in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan.

He went to Cranbrook from 1937 to 1939

This residence at Cranbrook was a momentous turning point in Harry’s life and career. Students did not receive a degree; rather they discovered their passion.

Cranbrook was, at the time, an amazing melting pot of creativity attracting many famous artists and designers: Carl Milles, resident-sculptor, Maija Grotell, resident-ceramist, Walter Gropius, visiting Bauhaus-architect, Edmund N. Bacon and others

Often called the “Cradle of American Modernism,” the Cranbrook Academy of Art boasts such prestigious alumni as Eero Saarinen, Harry Bertoia, Florence Knoll, Charles Eames, and Ray Eames.

bertoia at cranbrook

At Cranbrook he concentrated on drawing and monoprints.

Cranbrook Academy of Art - Harry Bertoia, Charles Eames, Ben Baldwin and unknown woman, ca 1939

Cranbrook Academy of Art – Harry Bertoia, Charles Eames, Ben Baldwin and unknown woman, ca 1939

At Cranbrook he forged friendships with Charles and Ray Eames, Florence and Hans Knoll, the Saarinen family, and many other inspiring personalities.

Harry Bertoia‘s first experience of Florence (“Shu”) Knoll was in Eliel Saarinen’s house at Cranbrook, when he and she were both students there.

Shu was reclining on a big sofa of Saarinen’s design. Bertoia remembered it as a “brief encounter” but “kind of marvellous” just the same.

The students were so few, that they all knew each other

Back row from left  Eero Saarinen, Lily Swann Saarinen and Florence Schust Knoll. Middle row Eliel Saarinen, Loja Saarinen and Hans Knoll.

Back row from left Eero Saarinen, Lily Swann Saarinen and Florence Schust Knoll. Middle row Eliel Saarinen, Loja Saarinen and Hans Knoll.

These relationships, along with his continuous exploration in numerous art forms, set Harry on an artistic path that would distinguish him as one of the more unique, and innovative talents of the 20th century in American art.

Arthur Nevill Kirk and apprentice Margaret Elleanor Biggar working in the metalsmithing studio at Cranbrook  1930

Arthur Nevill Kirk and apprentice Margaret Elleanor Biggar working in the metalsmithing studio at Cranbrook : 1930

Although he initially enrolled at Cranbook as a painting student, he spent most of his time working in the metal studio which had fallen into disuse when the school’s leading silversmith, Arthur Nevill Kirk, retired in 1936.

arthur neville kirk

arthur neville kirk

In 1939, Eliel Saarinen, director of the art community, asked Bertoia, age 24, to stay on at the academy to re-open the metalworking shop and was the “instructor of metal work”.

1939 architecture students at Cranbrook  From left  Edward Elliott, Victor King Thompson, Ted Luderowski, Harry Bertoia, Lawrence Lackey, James Berkey, Vito Girone

1939 architecture students at Cranbrook From left Edward Elliott, Victor King Thompson, Ted Luderowski, Harry Bertoia, Lawrence Lackey, James Berkey, Vito Girone

harry weese harry bertoia and eliel saarinen 1939 smithsonian gallery of art

Ben Baldwin (l) , Harry Bertoia, and Eliel Saarinen in 1939, studying models of the Smithsonian Gallery of Art

After little more than a year, Eliel Saarinen, who ran the academy, was so impressed with Bertoia’s work that he appointed him head of the studio, making him a full-time faculty member even though he was technically still a student of the college.

Brigitta (Valentiner) Bertoia, Harry Bertoia, Maija Grotell and Jill Mitchell September 1939

Brigitta (Valentiner) Bertoia, Harry Bertoia, Maija Grotell and Jill Mitchell September 1939


He established a studio and taught jewellery and metal smithing at Cranbrook Academy of Art from 1939 to 1943.

bertoia with student at cranbrook 1939

bertoia with student at cranbrook 1939

“It is to be regretted that the days are not twice as long, as he is also an accomplished painter and wood engraver.” ….. – Annual report on Harry as student, Cranbrook, 1940

“Probably the best instructor I ever had. Wonderful to be with; quiet, inspirational.”… – Robert Sailors

Bertoia Teaching at Cranbrook 1940

Bertoia teaching at Cranbrook 1940

Harry Bertoia assists Frances Blees in the Metals Studio at Cranbrook Academy of Art 1942

Harry Bertoia assists Frances Blees in the Metals Studio at Cranbrook Academy of Art 1942

The prototype dowel chair  c.1940, was an important developmental chair by Bertoia.

This experimental chair is from the artist’s personal collection and is quite probably the earliest seating design of Bertoia’s career.

While the overall form of the chair is heavily influenced by the work of Aalto and Breuer, Bertoia’s treatment of the seat with its structure of repeated wooden dowels points the way to Bertoia’s break through furniture series comprised of metal rods.

bertoia dowel chair 1940


When Eero Saarinen and Charles Eames entered The Museum of Modern Art‘s furniture competition Bertoia got involved, if only on the fringes; it aroused his curiosity.


In 1940, the MoMA’s director Eliot Noyes announced the competition called “Organic Design in Home Furnishing”  Curated by: Eliot Noyes

On the inside cover of the exhibition catalog, Noyes set the competition terms with his definition of Organic Design ……….

” A design may be called organic when there is an harmonious organization of the parts within the whole, according to structure, material, and purpose.

Within this definition there can be no vain ornamentation or superfluity, but the part of beauty is none the less great — in ideal choice of material, in visual refinement, and in the rational elegance of things intended for use.’”

organic design

Nayes organized the competition to shake the home furnishing design industry that, in his opinion, was stagnant and not responding to the modern homes dwellers needs anymore.

To make his mind clear, in the brief of the contest stated …

“In the field of home furnishings there has been no outstanding design developments in recent years. A new way of living is developing however requiring an adequate solution which takes into consideration the present social, economic, technical and aesthetic trends …”

The show helped to solidify mid-century design as more than a trend, and helped people understand how design can fit into their everyday lives by encouraging museum-goers to use and interact with the furniture.

The contest was an huge success achieving 585 participation requests, five of which from the Cranbrook Academy of Art in Michigan where Charles Eames was working.

eames and saarinen

Charles Eames, in team with Eero Saarinen, entered two categories of the competition consisting of molded shell chairs, case goods, and tables.

Both collections – storage and seating – won first prize, but their seating designs with compound-molded shells made from a single piece of plywood were notable for their use of innovative technology.

The model and the entry drawings for the competition were realized by the Cranbrook’s students Don Albinson, Harry Bertoia, and Ray Kaiser and presented on smaller versions of rugs and draperies designed at Cranbrook’s weaving department.


organic-design-in-home-furnishings-moma 2



organic-design-in-home-furnishings-moma 4

Organic Armchair, a collaboration of Charles Eames and Eero Saarinen for the Organic Design in Home Furnishings design competition at the Museum of Modern Art  1940

Organic Armchair, a collaboration of Charles Eames and Eero Saarinen for the Organic Design in Home Furnishings design competition at the Museum of Modern Art 1940

The Charles Eames – Eero Saarinen team won the first prize in both categories thanks also to pictures of a scale model that was so well realized that the MoMA jury thought it was of full-scale prototypes.

organic homes 2

eames saarinen furniture collections

The winning designs were to have been manufactured and marketed by twelve of the main US department stores of that time.

Unfortunately the award winning chair could not be successfully mass produced, so the mission was to find a way in which to do so.

harry cranbrook 1943

As the war came on metals were harder and harder to get, and for other reasons not wholly clear the bloom began to go off the Cranbrook flowering.

While showing an early talent for silver-plated tableware at Cranbrook, wartime metal rationing forced him to work on a smaller scale.

bertoia's metalwork 1942

bertoia’s metalwork 1942

Oct 2012 Harry gifted this creamer to his student and friend at Cranbrook who recently sold it at Wright Auction. Estimated at 20 - 30,000, it fetched $136,900.

Oct 2012 Harry gifted this creamer to his student and friend at Cranbrook who recently sold it at Wright Auction. Estimated at 20 – 30,000, it fetched $136,900.

Harry designed two sleek tea sets; one for Eliel Saarinen which is in the Cranbrook permanent collection and the second at the Detroit Institute of Art.

From an original interest in metalwork at the jewellery level he had moved on to being what he described as “sort of the student sculptor.”

cranbrook flower vases harry bertoia 1940

He was part of the “art to wear” movement.

The organic shapes and fine detail of the jewellery later evolved into the early sculpture forms.

He created jewellery from melted down metal scraps from the shop – including wedding rings for Cranbrook friends Charles and Ray Eames and Edmund Bacon’s wife Ruth.

eames love letter

In 1941 Ray Kaiser and Eames were married and moved to southern California

eames ring

aluminium wedding ring designed by Bertoia for Charles and Ray Eames


When all the metal was taken up by war efforts, he became the graphics instructor.

Harry also continued an after-hour activity he had begun as a student, experimenting and producing one-of-a-kind prints and drawings later known as Monoprints. The Monoprints of the 1940s are considered some of his most imaginative graphics.

Supported by a stipend from Karl Nierendorf of Nierendorf Gallery in New York, Harry continued to hold exhibits of jewellery and drawings.

Represented by the Nierendorf Gallery in New York City, Bertoia sold at least thirty-four prints while he was still a student at Cranbrook.

bloomfield hills mi 1942

His disinterest in the duplication inherent to the medium precipitated the use of movable plates and hand embellishments, distinguishing one print from the next through a series of flexible forms.

In 1943 , in his search for a critical perspective on his experimentation, Bertoia sent 100 of his monoprints to Hilla Rebay, director and curator of the Museum of Non-Objective Painting (the first incarnation of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum), New York.

Hilla Rebay, a supporter of Kandinsky, and the director of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum of Non-Objective Art, purchased some hundred drawings of Harry Bertoia, ( $ 1,000 all up ) exhibiting nineteen of them, it was clear that she regarded him not simply as an epigone of Kandinsky, but as an artist who found new spiritual and expressive possibilities in non-objectivity ”

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.

bertoia drawing

“Harry created the Monotypes in solitude, and devised his techniques by himself. As far as he was concerned, he invented the Monoprint process of working from the backside of the paper.

History reveals that Rembrandt, and later Gauguin and others, used a similar Monoprint style, as they, too, enjoyed the spontaneity…”


As Bertoia’s drawings from the 1940s show, he had much in common with his contemporaries of what later became known as the New York School.

The New York School ( literary dubbed) was a cauldron of creativity at the time was the intersecting worlds of design and architecture.

The blending of Bauhaus and Scandinavian sensibilities, European Modernism and American ingenuity were swirling like a vortex to create a watershed moment for new thinking.

A handful of the greatest stars during this time were Ray and Charles Eames, Eero Saarinen, Harry Bertoia, Frank Lloyd Wright, Alvar Aalto, Arne Jacobsen, Florence Knoll, Georg Jensen, Hans Wegner, George Nelson and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, to name but a few.


Wedding – 1943

Brigitta (Valentiner) and Harry Bertoia September 1939

Harry met Brigitta Valentiner in 1939.

She was the daughter of Wilhelm Valentiner, Director of the Detroit Institute of Arts and the foremost expert on Rembrandt in the U.S.

Harry Bertoia with Brigitta Valentiner at Cranbrook March 1942

Harry Bertoia with Brigitta Valentiner at Cranbrook March 1942

Brigitta pursued him relentlessly, and he and Brigitta were married on May 10, 1943

Harry’s Cranbrook friend, film maker Clifford ( Bud ) West was his best man

1943 bertoia wedding


California 1943-1950

In 1943, shortly after their marriage the couple moved to California at the request of a mutual friend, Charles Eames

That was one reason I went to the West Coast,” said Bertoia.” Another was not to be cold and wet.”

There he joined Charles Eames ( director of Research and Development ) and Don Albinson in the Molded Plywood Division of Evans Products Co in California, to pursue ongoing experimental work on molded plywood ( started at Cranbrook ) for the war effort making airplane parts manufactured by Evans Products Co,

Here Bertoia designed experimental glider parts in a factory near Los Angeles

Eames Office staff with plywood glider nose section. Left to right Charles Eames, Marion Overby, Gregory Ain, Harry Bertoia, Ray Eames, William Francis and Norman Bruns

Eames Office staff with plywood glider nose section. Left to right Charles Eames, Marion Overby, Gregory Ain, Harry Bertoia, Ray Eames, William Francis and Norman Bruns ( photograph by Herbert Matter )

study for a glider nose

study for a glider nose 2

He also worked with Eames developing plywood techniques in the manufacture of lightweight, inexpensive leg splints, and stretchers, for military medical services.

eames splint press

eames splint 2

Access to military technology and manufacturing facilities allowed the Eameses to perfect their technique for molding plywood, which they had been working on for several years.

The resulting design is a highly sculptural yet functional device that could be mass-produced and, being modular, conveniently and inexpensively transported.

In its three-dimensional, biomorphic form, the leg splint suggests the Eames’ subsequent, highly influential plywood furniture designs.

eames splints

The Eameses had wanted to develop low-cost techniques for laminating and molding wood, and they successfully produced plywood splints  for the Navy during the war.

He used this technology for furniture production.

Eliot Noyes 6 splints navy

It was in Eames’s mind all along to make the furniture he and Eero had designed for the Museum of Modern Art furniture competition they won, which had been essentially a paper exercise.

With Bertoia helping in production, Eames now wanted to realize the chairs in a practical form that could be manufactured and sold.

It was an effort doomed to failure; as Bertoia later said, “it was forcing plywood into a shape it did not want to take.”

After three months of experimenting Bertoia told Eames the attempt was futile.

Eames, suggested that Bertoia go ahead on his own.

What happened thereafter is a subject on which opinions differ.

Bertoia began to be more deeply involved in furniture design, not simply as sculpture but as an expression of bodily and skeletal behavior.

How long was the chair going to be sat in ? The longer, the larger the seating surface should be, to take account of the body’s motion.

In three weeks they arrived at about a dozen possible designs, including one that reminded Bertoia of a barber’s chair.

He was interested in metal, Eames in plywood.

While working at the Eames Office, Bertoia attended a welding class at Santa Monica City College.

A year later he began proto-typing metal frames for the “Eames” chairs.

Herbert Matter photographing at Evans Products in Venice ca. 1945

Herbert Matter photographing at Evans Products in Venice ca. 1945

They ended up with a plywood seat and back on a metal frame with three legs – the first of the “Eames” chairs

Bertoia’s understanding had been that this was a group effort, “that whatever contribution was made it would be as a group.”

But things didn’t quite work out that way; the Cranbrook group spirit was breaking up under the pressure of branching careers.

Eero Saarinen was to realize his own role as a furniture designer under the Knoll aegis; Eames,looking back, was to rationalize his decision not to go that route as a consequence of being a Midwesterner, for whom Knoll had too classy and international an image for him to be comfortable with it.

More than likely there were other reasons, among them his perception of the space he needed for his own gifts to expand.

At any rate, when the chairs were exhibited at The Museum of Modern Art in 1946; they were taken on for commercial production by the Herman Miller furniture company of Zeeland, Michigan; and when they passed into history – they did so as “Eames” chairs.

Although he helped Eames overcome numerous production difficulties associated with the Eames Chair, Bertoia was devestated to learn that Eames had presented the collective work as an individual achievement to the Museum of Modern Art.

Bertoia was understandably disappointed. He began to look around, to think about other jobs, of which there were not many in sight.

In 1946 , in frustration, Bertoia moved on.

Harry and Brigitta(Valentiner) Bertoia at a Saarinen Tea  1944

Harry and Brigitta ( Valentiner) Bertoia at a Saarinen Tea 1944


In 1947, Bertoia moved to La Jolla to work in the Point Loma Navel Electronics Laboratory, where he worked in the publications department producing technical training manuals and and worked on human movement studies  (ergonomics, although the word had not yet been invented) and stroboscopic photography designed to evaluate equipment.

Not exactly a place where he wanted to spend the rest of his life.

During this time he continued to make jewellery and monoprints. He also began his first experiments with metal sculpture.

In 1945, Harry held a show of his Monoprints at the San Francisco Museum of Art.

arts and architecture cover 1947

1948 jewellery letter to walker art centre

Bertoia stayed in La Jolla until 1949


Bertoia’s Years at Knoll, Pennsylvania 1950-1960

knoll before betoia

Then one day Hans and Shu Knoll turned up in California.

On the suggestion of Herbert Matter, who had worked alongside Eames and Bertoia, Florence and Hans Knoll travelled to California to encourage Bertoia to move East and set up his own metal shop in a corner of Knoll Inc’s production facility at Greenville, Pennsylvania

Having studied with Bertoia at Cranbrook, Florence Knoll was sure that he would produce something extraordinary if given the time and space to experiment.

Harry thought they were there to negotiate with Eames about the chairs, but soon out of the blue came a letter from Hans asking Bertoia to join the Knoll company, “put so nicely that I couldn’t possibly resist,” Bertoia said

He hesitated only because he really did love the Pacific Coast and hated to leave it.

florence and hans knoll in 1950

florence and hans knoll in 1950

Knoll insisted Bertoia pursue his craft without any contractual obligations, enabling him to explore what interested him. They offered him free rein to design what he wished – furniture or sculpture – with full credit and complete recognition of his work, which was their policy with all designers.

Hans was impatient; he wanted to put Bertoia’s name on a deal. So Bertoia’s wife Brigitta sent the Knolls a postcard saying, “Harry is happy to come.”

When Harrry got a telegram of thanks he called home, only to be told, “Oh Harry, I forgot to tell you.”

“It turned out,” said Bertoia, “to be a very happy decision.”

an early 1950s photograph of Herbert Matter, Hans Knoll, Florence Knoll and Harry Bertoia

an early 1950s photograph of Herbert Matter, Hans Knoll, Florence Knoll and Harry Bertoia

knoll team

In 1950 they went east. Pennsylvania, with its change of seasons, was a change in every way, a new beginning. He got to know Hans better:”The more I stayed with him, the more pleasurable it became.”

The Bertoia’s rented a place on Long Island in the summertime and after a busy week the Knolls would sometimes join them there.

“It was a stimulation,” said Bertoia. “It created an atmosphere of well being, of projections, of expectations. I think it was essentially Hans’s way of recognizing an individual’s ability and bringing it out as much as possible

Characteristic of the early environment at Knoll, Hans and Florence never demanded that Bertoia design furniture, but instead encouraged him to explore whatever he liked. They simply asked that if he arrived at something interesting, to show them.

Knoll trusted that if left to his own devices, Bertoia would produce something extraordinary.

They were right.

Harry Bertoia, early fifties, in his Bally, PA studio. Bertoia is seated on a stool made by his good friend George Nakashima

Harry Bertoia, early fifties, in his Bally, PA studio. Bertoia is seated on a stool made by his good friend George Nakashima

Bertoia is given room to play at Knoll. His contracts are written in such a way that he has a lot of creative freedom. He’s not necessarily given a commission or specific product that he’s meant to execute, rather he is invited to Knoll … and given this kind of creative license.

Bertoia joined the Knoll staff, but worked independently in his studio at home on his designs.

He was given a small room in the factory next to the railroad track: “There was not a single pair of pliers, a hammer, a grinding wheel, nothing.”

Hans thought Bertoia might want to begin by visiting institutions which used furniture, to see if they suggested any ideas to him, but Bertoia quickly discovered that he was not the man for this kind of research

“My feeling was that it had to come almost from an inward direction. I began to rely on my own body. I began to think in terms of what I would like as a chair.”

It started very slowly, but things were beginning to shape up.”

Bertoia’s method was to work with his own hands, trying variations, never satisfied. “When I get involved with something,” he said, “there will be a grouping. You will see them all around.”

Different chair functions – to sit up in, to relax in, to have the head held – would begin to find their natural form as he saw it.

“You know,” said Bertoia, “when you have something in front of you that can really physically be held, it becomes easier to make adjustments.”

He found that he was increasingly comfortable with metal rods and wire. When he came into rod or wire, whether bent or straight, he seemed to find himself at home.

As he worked, he found himself drawn to the use of metal wire.

bertoia chair collection (1)

Bertoia later explained the process:………….

I went around and discovered, quite soon, that I was not the man to do research. My feeling was that had to come from an inward direction. I began to rely once more on my own body. I began to think in terms of what I would like as a chair. It started very slowly…I came into rod or wire, whether bent of straight. I seemed to find myself at home. It was logical to make an attempt utilizing the wire.

“Once more, I went through the procedure of positioning, considering the possibility of shapes, then relating, of course, what the wire itself could be, what shapes it might take, whether there were any tools to do it with.

There are many aspects of the same things coming into one’s mind, but the very first thing was whether a shape would come up that would begin to serve as a chair, sitting on it, etc. One was taking the shape of a side chair; another was beginning to extend to care of the head.

This developed to the point where something could be held on to…You know, when you have something in front of you that can really physically be held, it becomes easier to make changes.”

ptrototype diamond chair frames

bertoia chairs 1952 by herbert matter

bertoia chairs 1952 – prototype evolution by herbert matter

About this time Eero Saarinen asked Bertoia to do a “structural screen” for the General Motors Technical Center, one of the first of the metal screen sculptures for which Bertoia became famous (he had earlier done them only in miniature).

Saarinen invited Bertoia to Michigan and told him one evening that they were invited to dinner with Alexander Girard and George Nelson, designers who (like Eames) were associated with Herman Miller.

“Harry,” said Saarinen, “do you realize that we are now going into enemy territory?”

Bertoia was amused, and in fact it would be fair to say that if there was a rivalry between Knoll and Miller designers it was a remarkably friendly one.

Modern design in those days was still a small family, a shared faith against the unbelieving world outside.

But after they had arrived and been served drinks George Nelson, “of all things,” said Bertoia, “pulls out a wire chair. It really surprised me . . .”

When he returned and told Hans Knoll, Hans was “quite bothered” and wondered whether or not they should proceed. Bertoia reassured him that the two developments were independent and would end up differently anyhow, so they went on ahead.

It took about a year and a half. Hans and Shu Knoll were very supportive of Bertoia – “they were sources of inspiration in many ways;

My relationship with both was quite wonderful’ – but there must have been moments of tension and impatience

Bertoia working in his studio in Bally, Pennsylvania, 1952.

Bertoia working in his studio in Bally, Pennsylvania, 1952

After six months Hans sent over Dick Schultz from the New York office to help out and, about eight months later, Don Petitt.

The production challenge of the chair was how to make – relatively inexpensively – a complex welded wire form.

The engineers at Knoll were thinking about how to bend the wires by machine but Harry found it more practical to do it by hand, and loaded the bent wires into a wooden jig that would hold them in place while they were being welded: A handicraft approach to a 20th-century production problem

Indeed this is the way Bertoia chairs are still made (his original jigs are still in the racks at the East Greenville plant).

Furniture designer Richard Schultz, who worked for Bertoia in developing the diamond chair, recalls the incredible workload his boss would maintain. After taxing days trying to resolve the design issues the chair posed, Harry would spend his evenings and weekends working on his sculpture.

” He was an absolute workaholic ” Schultz said.

Schultz also recalled what a gentleman Bertoia was. ” He worked all the time, but you never got the impression he was under any kind of tension or stress. . . . He was so obviously brilliant in what he was doing but at the same time very appreciative of what you could do to help him.”

Schultz, later recalled, “ We just knew from the very beginning that these chairs were going to be extraordinary. ”

After 2 years of experimentation and prototyping, Harry Bertoia finishes his collection of wire seating

Knoll released the Bertoia collection in small batches while the development group finalises techniques for mass producing the chair


The Bertoia Chair Collection  1952

Bertoia launch press release

Jun 21, 1952  Knoll Bertoia collection launch press release

The Bertoia chair collection — was made of polished steel wire, sometimes vinyl coated, and covered with cotton or with elastic Naugahyde upholstery—as well as a side chair and a bar stool made with the same mesh wire frames and the Bertoia bird chair and bird ottoman.

The chairs were exhibited in the Knoll showroom at 575 Madison Avenue in late 1952.

The chairs were a fluid, sculptural form made from a welded lattice work of steel

Bertoia’s eponymous furniture collection was instantly proclaimed one of the greatest achievements of 20th century furniture design.


The chairs were produced with varying degrees of upholstery over their light grid-work, and they were handmade at first because a suitable mass production process could not be found.

By early 1953 prototypes had begun to be produced in Permsburg and a workshop had been rented for Bertoia in nearby Bally, Pennsylvania, which he later acquired as a studio and there went forward in his own independent existence as a sculptor.

knoll chairs

Bertoia proof sheet for knoll

In the sculpture I am concerned primarily with space, form, and the characteristics of metal, in the chairs many functional problems have to be satisfied first . . . but when you get right down to it the chairs are studies in space, form, and metal too …. If you look at these chairs, they are mainly made of air, like sculpture. Space passes right through them.

air sculpture



Patents Dispute

bird chair patent 2

bertoia chair patent

bird chair patent 1

The Bertoia chair’s edge utilized two thin wires welded on either side of the mesh seat.

Unfortunatley however, this design had been granted a patent to the Eames for the wire chair produced by Herman Miller.

Herman Miller eventually won the ensuing legal dispute 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.

patent dispute 1

patent dispute 2

Nonetheless, the commercial success enjoyed by Bertoia’s Diamond chair was immediate, with the chair became part of the “modern” furniture movement of the 1950s.



chairs in the mist

Other furniture designed for Knoll included the Bird Lounge Chair, the asymmetric lounge chair ( released in 2005 at the Milan Furniture Fair ) and Bertoia barstools based upon the diamond chair designs.

bertoia products for knoll


Dec 10, 1952 Knoll press release for an exhibition of Harry Bertoia’s paintings, drawings, metal sculptures and chairs at the Knoll Associates New York showroom on Madison Avenue.

That exhibition included a standing floor sculpture made with brass-coated nails.

knoll dec 1952

On their appearance the Bertoia chairs were praised by the design press and profession, and have had a durable popularity down to the present; the risk had turned out to be worth the running.

It was a good time for Bertoia and the Knolls.

We were all young,” said Bertoia. ” I was no exception. Everybody was young.”

George Nelson, Edward Wormley, Eero Saarinen, Harry Bertoia, Charles Eames, Jens Risom

1961 Playboy article on design featuring George Nelson, Edward Wormley, Eero Saarinen, Harry Bertoia, Charles Eames, Jens Risom

knoll designers and products

knoll designers and products

knoll life magazine 1

Life magazine feature on Knoll

knoll life magazine 2

knoll life magazine 3

knoll life magazine 4

knoll adverts

bertoia chairs colours

asymetric chaise knoll

bertoia asymetric chaise by knoll

In 2005 Knoll introduced the Asymmetric Lounge, a design from Bertoia’s initial experimentation that never reached production

Today Knoll carries on Harry Bertoia’s legacy of innovation, inspiration and beauty with the Bertoia collection, which has been in continuous production around the world since its introduction.

knoll betoia collection

But furniture wasn’t to hold Bertoia’s interest, and by 1953, that chapter of his life was essentially closed.

I have given thought to designing new furniture …. Sometimes I even begin to feel I see some new shapes. But I doubt very much if I would ever return, a simple reason being that too many events have come into my heart. …. I would like to pursue sound a while longer until something happens to it.

knoll showroom 1965 b

knoll showroom 1965

Knoll compensated Bertoia handsomely for his wildly popular work, enabling Bertoia to purchase the farmhouse he had been renting, as well as his garage shop in Bally.

The commercial success of Bertoia’s work for Knoll allowed the artist “to concentrate his efforts on non-functional art” , which he enjoyed so much

Bertoia remained a consultant to Knoll International for twenty-six years ( until his death in 1978 )

His youngest daughter Celia was born on the 4th January, 1955 in Pennsylvania

harry and celia

celia and harry bertoia

celia and harry bertoia


Trip to Italy, 1957

harrys family in san lorenzo in 1957

The Bertoi family in San Lorenzo, Italy in 1957     Val (l) , Ave, Celia, Brigitta and Harry

In 1957, Harry received a grant from Chicago’s Graham Foundation, affording him the opportunity to return to Italy for the first time since 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 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.

stampelli gallery

1959 brought the first of many sculptural shows to the Staempfli Gallery, New York. They held a retrospective show in 1981.

Each exhibition boasted beautiful full color catalogs.

lesta and val bertoia

Bertoia’s children Lesta and Val, seated in miniature versions of his wire side chair, 1961


Tonals and Sonambient 1960-1969

sonambient bertoia (2)

He was often inspired by nature and music, and in the early 1960s, he embarked on a sonic journey to join the two disciplines.

While Bertoia was working on a sculpture that consisted of several standing rods, he accidentally broke a rod, causing it to crash into another rod, resulting in a sound that resonated deeply with the artist.

According to Bertoia himself, this sound “initiated a deliberate gesture in search of understanding what a group of wires would do.”

“Immediately, the question came to mind,” he recalled in a 1972 interview, “if one wire produces such a sound, what would two rods produce, or what would 10, or a hundred?”

Bertoia, who died in 1978 at age 63, devoted the last two decades of his life to that question.

He crafted scores of sound sculptures in varied shapes and sizes, each so tonally distinct that he likened playing a new one to “hearing the cry of a newborn baby.”

He remodelled his barn to house these pieces, played them for visitors and recorded them for self-released albums that became legendary in the world of experimental sound art.

This passion for making sound with sculptures — a process Bertoia called “Sonambient” — was fueled by a simple desire.

Harry always wished that there would be some instrument that you didn’t have to train on to become a master, and this was his solution.

“Anyone from a 2-year-old to a ­90-year-old could play these sculptures, and whatever they did would be wonderful. He loved that.”


From the early 1960s onwards turned his attentions ever more to music.

Inspired by childhood memories of watching Hungarian Gypsies repair and make metal kitchenware and fascinated by the universality of a sculpture as a musical instrument which everyone could “play” regardless of talent or training, Harry Bertoia created a series of so-called tonal sculptures, largely created from rods of differing metals, lengths and thickness, but also featuring gongs and other hanging constructions

Throughout the 1960s, Bertoia created over a hundred sound sculptures consisting of rows of flexible copper rods that sway when touched or blown, producing various tones depending on the length and mass of the rods.

He referred to this sonorous atmosphere as Sonambient, the resulting environment created by the gentle clangor of the rods.

In his rural Pennsylvania barn he renovated for optimal acoustics, Bertoia arranged over one hundred of these sculptures in a specific tonal order and recorded eleven Sonambient albums.

In 1960, Harry Bertoia started 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 20+ feet.

Bertoia with Sonambient Sculptures

Bertoia with Sonambient Sculptures



Many metals were used for the rods, the most common being beryllium copper known for its wide range of color variations.

Some rods are capped with cylinders or drops of metal, which, by their weight, accentuate the swaying of the tonal rods.

barn prior to renovation

Bertoia’s Bally barn prior to renovation in 1968

Harry and Oreste (his older brother) both loved music and spent endless happy hours experimenting and finding new sounds to incorporate into Sonambient, the auditory and visual environment created by the tonals.

“He worked with metals all his life and career,” Val Bertoia said. “It was using metals first to make the physical human body comfortable and still using metals later in life to make the human spirit comfortable with sounds.”

He gave small concerts to visitors and friends

harry bertoia in concert

barn 2

The Sonambient Barn has remained as he left it to this day.



Barn 1968 / 69

Bertoia worked at Knoll for only two years, designing just one line of furniture. But the small-town, rural life of central Pennsylvania grew on him.

He bought a farmhouse with a barn near Bally, a few miles from East Greenville, ( with his $ 12.000 Knoll lump sum licence fee for the bertoia chairs ) and stayed there until his death 25 years later.

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.

barn 1

Bertoia always looked to the natural world for inspiration. To live in the countryside was a lifelong pursuit of Bertoia’s, as he abhorred the trappings and technological fetters of the city.

In the mid-1950s, Bertoia bought the studio space Knoll had set up for him in Bally, a small town about 20 miles east of Reading.

He eventually concentrated solely on sound sculptures for the barn and public spaces. (Commissions included a 40-foot-long bronze piece, which is still there, made for Dulles Airport in 1963.)

Harry’s son, Val Bertoia runs the studio today, continuing to oversee the making and selling of Bertoia pieces.


Val also still lives in the home where Harry and wife, Brigitta, raised him, Celia and their sister, Lesta. It’s a few miles from the studio and a few yards from the Sonambient barn, amid 90 acres of farmland.

The fields there are dotted with sculptures by Harry and Val, and the microphones that recorded the sculptures still hang from the barn’s ceilings, beneath the loft where Harry napped between work sessions.

He was never far from Knoll, and Knoll was never far from him.

The international company — which still retains its headquarters amid the soybean fields of East Greenville — often brought clients and VIPs to visit the famous sculptor’s studio.

Soothing the spirit with sound

He had a big gong. At the entrance, he had a leather-wrapped mallet and would ask someone to bang the gong before entering,

That gong still greets visitors to the studio in Bally where his son, Val Bertoia, continues to make sound sculptures and gives daily tours.



harry bertoia with thomas zung

mentor harry bertoia with ex student thomas zung

Toxic fumes from the materials he worked with, such as the beryllium copper he so loved, contributed to his lung cancer.

Learning of the dismal diagnosis of lung cancer caused Bertoia to work furiously on organizing his monoprints, perfecting the tonal barn collection, and putting his life’s work in order.

He had produced more than 50,000 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.

Yet, his death was peaceful, he felt complete, and he accepted dying as simply one more graceful part of life.


Harry Bertoia, October 9, 1978  …….

obit 11-7-1978 b

obit 11-7-1978


Received by Brigitta – from Franco Toso ( Harry’s doctor ) – a few weeks after Harry’s death

letter before death


Harry knew he would be dying soon and had time to ponder that.

He would say to his family things like …..   “ I am not really leaving you. Whenever you hear the wind rustling the leaves in a tree you’ll think of me ”  ..or …. ” If you see the grasses blowing, you will think of me.”

``My father said that in 50 years, the world would be ready to hear these sounds. They are too far beyond their understanding now.” ……. Val Bertoia


harry Bertoia is buried behind the Sonambient Barn under a huge 1-ton Bertoia gong.

Harry Bertoia is buried behind the Sonambient Barn under a huge 1-ton Bertoia gong.

He heard the voice of the wind bringing sound  from  form to life”  reads the epitaph near the huge gong behind the barn, where he is buried.

Perhaps Bertoia’s choir of the cosmos is now ready to speak to a new generation.



Family – Post Harry’s death

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 ( son ) and Lesta ( oldest daughter ) are artists in their own right, while his youngest daughter Celia has taken over the handling of his monoprints and spreading the news about Harry’s lifetime achievements

knoll bally bertoia studio

knoll bally bertoia studio

The studio in Bally, PA, is still used today by Val Bertoia, his son, who is a sculptor and inventor

Val continues the Bertoia tradition of making artwork here and leads seasonal tours in the nearby family homestead where he lives.

He repairs his father’s artwork and authenticates pieces.

More than 2,000 miles away in Montana, Val’s sister Celia gives lectures at museums, set up a website about Bertoia art and has started selling reproduction Bertoia sculpture and jewellery.

It’s all part of a plan to raise the Bertoia name so it’s as recognizable as Picasso and Calder.

“I want Harry Bertoia to be recognized for the artistic genius that he was,” she said.

Their older sister, Lesta, moved to Hawaii, where she paints intuitive portraits and dreamy spiritual landscapes. She stays away from the business of Bertoia

Their paths show the different ways family members carry on the legacy of an iconic artist while balancing the need to make a living.

They’re advancing the art, but managing an estate can be a complicated business with things like royalties, sales and licensing.


Work Methods


Like many successful passionate artists, Harry was a workaholic.

He would go to work 8 a.m. to 5 pm. Then he would come home and we would have dinner at 5:30 pm

Often times Brigitta and Harry would play a game of chess, especially in the winter if it was dark. Then he would read a magazine on the couch for a while and take a short nap and then about 9:00 he would go back to work.

And that was his personal experimentation time.

He did the public commissions and the work that was already spoken for during the day with the helpers. And at night he would do things that he had been aching to do, to play around with. And if he got on a roll, often times he would work through the night and not even realize it.

His brother Oreste who worked under him, would come at 8 am in the morning, and they would see Harry in the same clothes as yesterday, all disheveled and he would say “Harry what are you doing here?”

And he just didn’t even realize that the night had passed.


Bertoia the artist


Creating thousands of works of varying sizes, Bertoia adapted the welding, brazing, and burnishing of industrial metalwork in artworks that explore the relationships among line, form, and negative space.

The influence of utilitarian design in his artworks facilitates their assimilation within their environments, and from 1953 to 1978 Bertoia received commissions to create his spatially complex sculptures for myriad public spaces.

In 1960 he integrated his lifelong love of music into his sculpture, choosing particular metals and manipulating their form and mass in ways that would allow for sonorous response to wind or touch, and then recording their sounds.

These ” Sonambient ” sculptures were a focus of Bertoia’s work until the artist’s death

Grouping of Harry Bertoia sculptures from the John R. Eckel Jr. collection Courtesy of The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

Solo exhibitions of Bertoia’s works on paper and sculptures were held at ……

The Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C. (1943); Wadsworth Atheneum, Hartford, Connecticut (1974); Art Institute of Chicago (1975); and Muhlenberg College’s Martin Art Gallery, Allentown, Pennsylvania (1975), which awarded him an honorary doctorate in 1975.

Major commissions can be found at ….

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology chapel, Cambridge (1955); State Department building, Washington, D.C. (1956); Davies Auditorium, Yale University, New Haven (1958); and the Federal Reserve Bank building, Richmond, Virginia (1978).

Bertoia’s work can be found in …..

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).

art groups

art groups 2




Paintings / Monotones


Harry Bertoia, an artist primarily known for his sculpture and design, created a significant body of graphic work that, if not ultimately of the very first rank, nonetheless deserves an honored place in mid-20th Century American art.

He started the Monoprints in 1939 and continued throughout his life even into his last year, 1978.

Knoll historian Brian Lutz once said, “Bertoia’s paintings were better than his sculptures. And his sculptures were better than his furniture. And his furniture was absolutely brilliant.

Bertoia always thought of his drawings as his most privately important work, the journal of his days. He never ceased to draw.

Bertoia’s technique was unusual; he inked plates, as for etchings or woodcuts, and then, using the result as a ground, drew on the reverse side.

This practice did lead him into graphic work proper, as in the monotypes he executed in the ’40s; some drawings, too, were sketches for sculpture.

Most frequently, however, Bertoia drew spontaneously, letting his mood carry him.

The result invariably shows a powerful sense of form and fluid control.

1668 ink on paper 1970s

Drawing on the backside of the page did not permit clear visibility, a great advantage, for it necessitated inner vision to take over the function of the eye. Surprises were always in store when the paper was turned over“……. Harry Bertoia


Bertoia developed his own individual style of creating monographics by trial and error at Cranbrook, and never worked with, or even met, other printmakers.

Often he would ink up a glass surface, place the rice paper on the glass, and then etch designs with fingers or hand tools from the backside of the paper.

Each “print” is unique – never reproductions of another – and there are several thousand of them floating around


Bertoia loved the quickness and spontaneity of the medium of his graphics. He enjoyed the way that the free form medium of ink and paper permitted him to get his ideas on paper quickly and spontaneously.

While sculptures took weeks or months to produce, monotypes came to life in mere minutes.

The series of 50 monotypes reproduced in the Harry Bertoia Fifty Drawings “came into being in about twenty-four hours of uninterrupted work”.



When Bertoia, looking for critique and direction, sent about 100 Monoprints to Hilla Rebay at the Guggenheim Museum of Non-Objective Art in 1943, he was quite shocked when she asked what the price was to purchase the entire stock.

He was up half the night determining a fee, and finally set $1000 as his compensation.

When the subsequent Guggenheim show included many of his prints, Bertoia’s name gained recognition


His love of the monotype art form, has left us with a large body of work that opens a window to the evolution of his movement from Monoprint to sculpture. The drawings, or monoprints, were part of Harry’s creative process throughout his career.

Bertoia also made monoprints, which he used as studies of shape and line. Many of Bertoia’s monoprints feature shapes that would become the basis of his sculptures.

Most of Bertoia’s designs, whether they are chairs or sculptures or sounding pieces, were born on paper first

mono 730


Celia Bertoia presentation



harry bertoia printmaker book cover

June Kompass Nelson authored an informative and well-illustrated book on the monoprints entitled Harry Bertoia, Printmaker, in 1988.

June analyzes the graphic works and places them in the context of Bertoia’s total oeuvre, with particular regard to their relationship with his sculpture.

The seventy-nine Monotypes in this catalogue represent the principal styles and themes that emerged not only in Harry Bertoia‘s printmaking, but in his sculpture as well.



harry and sculpture

Bertoia always understood himself primarily as a sculptor, and saw his product design work as an exploration of the borders of his sculpting and an opportunity to test his art in other contexts.

While he only designed one series of furniture, Bertoia continued to be involved in the Knoll story by providing sculptures and architectural installations for Planning Unit projects.

In the mid-1950’s, the chairs being produced by Knoll sold so well that the lump sum payment arrangement from Knoll allowed Bertoia to devote himself exclusively to sculpture.

In 1953-54, at the request of Josef Albers, he was invited to be the visiting critic in sculpture at Yale University

Bertoia spent the next 25 years of his life experimenting with light, sound and volume through sculptures, paintings and architectural installations.


A multi-talented artist in his own right, Harry Bertoia was part of the post-war American sculptural movement that helped free the discipline from the yoke of European influence.

In the wake of the World War II, a wave of economic prosperity and industrial power resulted in significant scientific advances.

Exposed to a surfeit of new industrial materials, Bertoia and his contemporaries quickly became technically proficient with the acetlyene torch, which enabled them to deftly manipulate previously untried metal alloys, wires, and plastics.

Bertoia Acetylene Torch

Tired of the heavy forms that were dominant in the European sculptural tradition, post-war American sculptors experimented with mobile, pliable, and light forms in their work, giving birth to a new sculptural vocabulary.

In pursuit of such ends, Bertoia worked in tandem with other notable innovators, including Alexander Calder and George Rickey, who incorporated kinesthetics in their mobile-like works.

Known as a gentle genius, Bertoia’s rare talent was often eclipsed by his humility and kindness, which few who had the privilege of meeting him could fail to notice.

A contemporary of the Abstract Expressionists, Bertoia’s de facto demeanor could not be more opposed to the egocentric attitude of his cultural milieu.

bertoia in his studio

bertoia in his studio c 1976

He almost never signed his work, believing his sculptural creations to be reflections of the natural world.  He believed the piece itself was a signature, and felt what he created belonged to the universe; and that he did not need to apply his name or a title.

A signature..or title would impose personality, meaning, and value, calling attention to the artist rather than the piece itself. He wanted to avoid these limits of classification and categorization. Instead he chose to convey his connection to the universe, and not necessarily remain bound to earthly conventions.


Of his myriad talents, Bertoia always thought of himself first and foremost as a sculptor.

He conceived of his secondary pursuits—which included the creation of jewellery, furniture, monoprints, and consumer goods—as a means of making a living while experimenting with materials and ideas in a manner that would inform his sculptures.


Public Commissions ( Applied Arts )

standard oil commission 5

From 1953 to 1978 Harry Bertoia crafted numerous large sculptural commissions.

He made over 50 public sculptures of all types, which are on display in cities throughout the United States as well as abroad.

Harry was hired and admired by the greatest architects of the time, including Eero Saarinen, Henry Dreyfuss, Roche & Dinkeloo, Gordon Bunshaft, Minoru Yamasaki, and Edward Durell Stone & I M Pei.

He won numerous architectural and artistic awards for public sculptures throughout his career, despite the fact that they held little importance to him (he felt that titles or pieces of paper were insignificant).

  • Architectural League of New York gold medal
  • Craftsmanship Medal of the American Institute of Architects
  • Graham Foundation for Advanced Studies in Fine Arts in Chicago
  • Craftsmanship Medal of the American Institute of Design
  • Fine Arts Medal from the Pennsylvania Association of the American Institute of Architects
  • Excellence in Sculpture prize at the Philadelphia Arts Festival
  • Honorary Degree in Fine Arts from Muhlenberg College in Allentown
  • Fine Arts Medal of the American Institute of Architects in San Francisco
  • Institute Award of the American Academy of Arts and Letters
  • Honorary Degree in Letters from Lehigh University, Bethlehem
  • Posthumous Hazlett Memorial Award for Excellence in the Arts in Pennsylvania, accepted by Brigitta Bertoia



Significant Major Commissions



Harry Bertoia Public Works General Motors Technical Center
Warren, MI
Architect: Eero Saarinen


Manufacturers Hanover Trust Co, now Joe Fresh Clothing
70’ panel removed, then replaced, along with “cloud” hanging sculpture (2 pieces)
5th Avenue, New York City, NY
Architect: George Bunshaft and R. Allen of Studio Skidmore, Owings & Merrill
Harry Bertoia Public Works Cincinnati Public Library
Cincinnati, OH
Architect: Garber & Associates


Massachusetts Institute of Technology Chapel
Cambridge, MA
Architect: Eero Saarinen
Dallas Public Library
Dallas, TX
Architect: George L Dahl
Lambert Airport
St Louis, MO
Architect: Hellmuth, Minoru Yamasaki & Leinweber (subsequently removed – model displayed at St. Louis Art Museum)


Dayton Department Store, now Macy’s
Placed in central courtyard
Edina, MN
Architect: Victor Gruen Associates (Herman Guttman)
US Department of State Consular Housing
Bremen, Germany
Architect: G Bunshaft of Studio Skidmore, Owings & Merrill
US Department of State for American Consulate
Dusseldorf, Germany
Architect: G Bunshaft of Studio Skidmore, Owings & Merrill


First National Bank
Tulsa, OK
A rchitect: McCune & McCune Associates (sculpture moved to downtown plaza)


Yale University
Hew Haven, CT
Architect: G Bunshaft of Studio Skidmore, Owings & Merrill
World Fair US Pavilion
Brussels, Belgium
Displayed at the Museum of Fine Arts, Richmond, VA
Architect: Edward D. Stone


Zenith Radio Corporation
Chicago, IL (donated to and displayed at Smithsonian American Art Museum)
First National Bank
Sold to private party.
Miami, FL
Architect: Florence Knoll


Denver Hilton Hotel, now the Sheraton
Sold at unknown date, no longer displayed
Denver, CO
Architect: I. M. Pei (hanging dandelion)
Denver Hilton Hotel, now the Sheraton
Sold at unknown date, no longer displayed
Denver, CO
Architect: I. M. Pei (double tree)
St. John’s Unitarian Church
Cincinnati, OH
Architects: John Garber, Tweddell & Wheeler Assoc.
Albright-Knox Art Gallery
Tall tonal sold, but smaller 1953 bronze grid plus large 1961 metal screen are displayed
Buffalo, NY
Architect: G Bunshaft of Studio Skidmore, Owings & Merrill
Eastman Kodak Company
Now at Rochester Institute of Technology, donated by Kodak in 1975
Dandelion, wall sunburst, and bronze planter – 3 very fine pieces
Rochester, NY
Chi Omega Sorority, now at Huntingdon Beard Crouse Hall
Syracuse University
Syracuse, NY


Bankers Trust Company, sold to Istithmar World of Dubai
No longer displayed
New York, NY
Architect: H Dreyfuss, Dreyfuss & Associates


Dulles International Airport FAA Building
Re-installed 2012 after airport upgrade,
Chantilly, VA
Architect: Eero Saarinen (died suddenly) and Kevin Roche
Perpetual Savings and Loan Association, now Milton Abrahams branch of Omaha Public Library
Now inside
Los Angeles, CA
Architect: Edward D. Stone (now displayed in Omaha Public Library)


Eastman Kodak Pavilion World’s Fair
New York, NY
7 dandelions (gifted to Rochester I.T.)
W Hawkins Ferry
Grosse Pointe Shores, MI
Architect: Meathe, Kessler & Associates
Stemmons Towers International Sculpture Garden
Dallas, TX
Organized by Trammel Crow
All sculptures sold to private parties
Golden West Savings Association, now Wells Fargo
Whereabouts unknown
Castro Valley, CA
Architect: M L Gaidano
Princeton University
Princeton, NJ
Architect: Minoru Yamasaki
Northwestern National Life Insurance Company
Minneapolis, MN
A rchitect: Minoru Yamasaki


Cuyahoga Savings Association,
Sold to private party, no longer publicly displayed
Cleveland, OH
Architect: Lawrence & Associates
Southwestern Bell (now AT&T)
No Photo Available, Whereabouts unknown
Greenway Plaza
Houston, TX


River Oaks Shopping Center
Calumet City, IL
A rchitect: Leobl, Schlossmann, Bennet & Dart Ass.


GSA Federal Court Building
Brooklyn, New York
Architect: Carson, Lundin & Shaw
Currently in storage in GSA building
Philadelphia Civic Center
Currently in storage, buildings torn down
Philadelphia, PA
Architect: E D Stone, Davis, Pool & Sloan Associates
Whiting Auditorium
Flint, MI


Rochester Institute of Technology
Rochester, NY
Architect: Roche & Dinkeloo
Manufacturers and Traders Trust Company
Buffalo, NY
Architect: Minoru Yamasaki
Seattle First National Bank
Seattle, WA
Architect: Naramore, Bain, Brady & Johansen


Genesee Valley Shopping Center
Flint, MI


Lake Clifton Senior High School
Baltimore, MD


Marshall University memorial for football team
Huntington, WV
Architect: Keith Dean


Edith Abbott Memorial Library
Grand Island, NE
National Bank of Boyertown
Boyertown, PA
Displayed at Reading Area Community College since 2005
A Price Woodard Memorial
Wichita, KS
Standard Oil Plaza (now the Aon Center)
6 pieces remain at the Aon Center, 5 sold in 2013
Chicago, IL
Architect: E Durrell Stone


Music Speech and Theatre Arts Building
University of Akron
Akron, OH
Architect: Thomas Zung
Annenberg Center
University of Pennsylvania
Philadelphia, PA
Swann Oil, Inc.
Bala-Cynwyd, PA
Declared bankruptcy 1984, sculpture whereabouts unknown


Colorado National Bank
Denver, CO
Sold to private party
Allentown-Bethlehem-Easton Airport (Lehigh Valley Airport)
Removed 2010, Now in storage (Ask to have it displayed!)
Allentown, PA
US Embassy
Architect: Eero Saarinen
Sun Oil Company Headquarters
Radnor, PA
Bowling Green State University, Alumni Center
Moved to School of Arts courtyard, model in library archives
Bowling Green, OH
Architect: T Zung


Sentry Insurance Company World Headquarters
Stevens Point, WI


Federal Reserve Bank
Richmond, VA


Glenville Public Library
Glenville, OH
Architect: Thomas Zung
NOTE: This piece was designed and begun by Harry, but completed by his son Val Bertoia.


General Motors

General Motors Technical Center, Warren Michigan, Arch. Eero Saarinen

General Motors Technical Center, Warren Michigan, Arch. Eero Saarinen

Eero Saarinen ( designer, architect and Cranbrook friend ) gave Bertoia his first chance to create sculpture on a bigger scale, hiring him for the General Motors Technical Center job in 1953.

The 36’ long metal screen was challenging in both practical and logistical senses, but launched the sculptor on a consistent path of largely successful pieces.

When Harry was finishing the General Motors screen, a tremendous thunder storm blew up in the night.

Harry recalled ….

I was afraid that the whole thing would be thrown over…. I didn’t have any canvas so I pulled my sheet off my bed and tried to put it on top but it got immediately soaked and so I abandoned the whole thing; let it happen. I went to sleep and in the morning everything was quiet…it was washed clean


MIT Chapel

mit chapel

Also commissioned by Eero Saarinen was the steel screen altar piece in the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Chapel, created in 1955.

This is one of the most striking sculptures by Harry Bertoia.

It ushers in the contemporary era of spacial sculpture, liberated from a base.


First National Bank Miami

Commissioned by Florence Knoll for First National Bank in Miami, Florida, in the  1950s

Harry with his son Val at the wall sculpture commissioned by Florence Knoll for First National Bank in Miami, Florida, in the 1950s

Commissioned by Florence Knoll for her design for the lobby of the First National Bank of Miami, Sculpture Screen is a 1959 work, one of ten 11-foot tall screens of melt-coated brass over steel panels.

first national bank miami

A 1960 review in Domus, the renowned Italian architecture and design magazine founded by Gio Ponti, described them as “abstracted trees with leaves of golden money.”

The screens obtain their aesthetic force not only from their size but also from their placement together: they form an environment; a kind of indoor forest.


Dallas Public Library

Bertoia’s brass, copper, and nickel screen was installed in the Dallas Public Library in 1955.

Bertoia’s brass, copper, and nickel “Textured Screen” for the Dallas Public Library, 1955

The Dallas Public Library screen of alternating metal rectangles was ultimately a well-loved piece but had an inauspicious birth.

Bertoia’s “Textured Screen” caused much controversy when it was unveiled for the Dallas Public Library in 1954

Once installed in the library by Bertoia himself, the mayor commented, “It looks to me like a bunch of junk painted up. Besides, it’s a cheap welding job.”

There was discussion of not paying the bill, of removing it, of installing a painted mural or of simply buying more books instead.

It was actually taken down while the library commission decided what to do. In the meantime, a wealthy bank owner offered to purchase the piece for his Dallas bank.

Finally, after much media babble, the public came to the rescue, making donations to bring the metal screen back into the library.

It ultimately became one of the biggest marketing hits that the library ever accomplished and still stands there today.

dallas library

It is said that architects were always pleased to work with Bertoia, as was he with them.

Bertoia built a reputation of being on time, and listening to and understanding the needs of the venture.


Joslyn’s Art Museum Fountain Court, Omaha  1963

omaha public library

Harry Bertoia’s sculpture entitled “Sunburst,” created in 1963 of gold-plated stainless steel was originally made for the Edward Durrell Stone Building in Los Angeles. However the sea air and salt water proved harmful and an indoor location was needed.

The Joslyn Art Museum acquired the “SunBurst” piece in 1972.

It was relocated to the lobby of the Milton R. Abrahams Branch of the Omaha Public Library. when the museum’s fountain court was remodelled.

The atrium at the new library was designed specifically for “Sunburst


Manufacturer’s Hanover Trust Building ( originally Chase Manhattan Bldg  now J P Morgan )  New York , 1954

Gordon Bunshaft, and harry re manufacturers project

Gordon Bunshaft, left, partner in the architectural firm of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, designers of Manufacturers Hanover Trust Company’s new Fifth Avenue Office, discusses blueprints for the erection of the six-ton sculptured metal screen (1954) created by Harry Bertoia, right

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.

manufacturers hanover trust building 1960

manufacturers hanover trust

The Manufacturers Hanover Trust Building - designed by Gordon Bunshaft - 1954

Manufacturer's Hanover Trust Building,originally the Chase Manhattan building, designed by Gordon Bunshaft and completed in 1954. closeup

card to oreste from harry

It was dismantled and removed in 2010 by J. P. Morgan Chase and re set up in a new Joe French fashion chain store in New York

Manufacturer's Hanover Trust Building, , originally the Chase Manhattan building, designed by Gordon Bunshaft and completed in 1954.


Whiting Auditorium, Flint, Michigan  1967

Dandelion sculpture at the Whiting Auditorium in Flint, Michigan, 1950s

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.


St Johns Church , Cincinatti  1961

St. John's Unitarian Church, Cincinnati, Ohio, 1961

Upon inspecting a possible external sculpture site at St John’s Unitarian Church in Cincinnati with one of the architects on a cloudy November day, Bertoia walked around, pondered and spoke.

You do not need a sculpture here. This tree will cast a shadow on that wall that is art enough.”  Stepping inside where the construction was only at the framing stage, again Bertoia examined the space and mulled it over.  “Here – we will put it here by this wall. I think I know what to do.

With that statement everyone felt relieved that the artist would succeed, which he did in magnificent style.


Kodak Eastman Co Pavillion at the World Fair New York , 1964

kodak pavillion

The 1964 New York World’s Fair Kodak building displayed seven gold-plated dandelions around a spraying fountain.

Bertoia created a series of seven sculptures, referred to as the “Golden Dandelions”.

The artist hoped the pieces would be “quietly delightful to people.”

The steel sculptures included bronze “stems” that ranged from six to fourteen feet long, feeding into golden spheres that were up to six feet in diameter.

Additionally, the pieces were designed to move up to 30 degrees in the wind.


On April 18, 1975, the Eastman Kodak Company presented the seven sculptures to the Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT) in a ceremony held in the Bevier Gallery.

Bertoia attended the ceremony and gave a presentation to students on the previous day.

After being on exhibit in the Bevier Gallery, the sculptures were moved to the NTID courtyard for permanent display. Currently, these pieces are installed in RIT’s Bausch and Lomb building.


North Western Insurance Building, Minneapolis, 1964

Northwestern Life Insurance Building, Minneapolis 1964

The Northwestern National Life Building, is an office building located in the Gateway District of Minneapolis.

It was designed by Minoru Yamasaki and was opened in 1965


Zenith Radio TV Showroom , Chicago  1959

zenith radio showroom

Bertoia created this sculpture group for Zenith Radio Corporation’s Chicago headquarters.

The largest cluster symbolizes the world, transmitting light to the three smaller forms, representing sight, sound and electronic control and responding with “luminous impulses” of their own.

Bertoia explained that “we live in a time dominated by these invisible forces…these elements of the atomic and electronic age that I am trying to give sculptural shape and form.”The work reflects the optimism of the 1950s, when the economy boomed and new technologies appeared every day.

Zenith Showroom

Visitors watching the clusters flash at regular intervals likely thought of Sputnik, the satellite launched by the U.S.S.R. in 1957. Americans turned out to watch its blinking path across the night sky, and the event launched the space race between the Soviet Union and the United States.

Across the nation, broadcast television was transforming American culture, and thousands of TV sets appeared in households for the first time.

Bertoia’s vision of global communications is our reality today, when hundreds of satellites receive and transmit signals for television, cell phones, and computers at every moment.


Dulles Airport, Washington DC

dulles airport feature wall panels

This bronze wall sculpture “View of Earth from Space” at Dulles International Airport near Washington, D.C. (1963; dismantled for airport renovation and reinstalled in 2012),

Bertoia claimed that his sculpture evolved when the jewellery he was designing “kept getting larger and larger.”

Although the experimentation for this piece took almost a year, the final panels were poured in a 24 hour period! The metal was heated to 2000 degrees and poured onto sand. It was hot work!


Metallic Mural in US Embassy Caracas, Venezuala, 1963

Old US Embassy building in Venezuela (1957), with a metallic mural by American artist Harry Bertoia, La Floresta, Caracas. 1963

Old US Embassy building in Venezuela (1957), with a metallic mural by American artist Harry Bertoia, La Floresta, Caracas. 1963


Marshall University, 1972

we are marshall

On November 14, 1970, upon returning from a loss at East Carolina, Southern Airways flight 932 crashed into a hill just short of Huntington’s Tri-State Airport, killing all 75 people on board.

The plane was carrying 37 members of the Marshall football team, 8 members of the coaching staff, 25 boosters and 5 flight crew.

The 6500 pound 13’ high sculpture commemorates the 75 lives lost.


Metal Dimensions – Sculptures of Harry Bertoia

metal dimensions

The movie titled “Metal Dimensions”, shot by director Madeline Tourtelot at the end of the ’50s, shows the interior of the study Bertoia, and also Bertoia explains some of his work .

Madeline Tourtelot and bertoia in the studio

Madeline Tourtelot and Harry Bertoia editing the film in his studio



Ornamental Sculptures

bertoi sculptures

Bertoia’s love of nature is present in most of his work. Through his use of metal, he interpreted natures sounds, motions, and forms. The resulting work achieved a symmetry experienced only in nature.

Other sculptural forms he experimented with were his Willows / Sprays / Spill Casts / Sunlit Straw / Panel Sculptures / Melt Press / Stalks, / Grids, / Gongs, / Mushrooms / Dandelions and many others



harry and sculptures

His “Bush” sculptures are considered some of his most beautiful work.

Starting with a simple core or trunk made of copper, Bertoia would methodically branch out his “Bush” forms, as one sees in nature, and terminate each branch with a bead of bronze.


bertoia with bush sculpture

dedece bertoia link story

Here is a Bertoia bush from around 1960, 10″ tall. The bushes were labor intensive, very detailed, and usually of copper and brass. One this size took about a month to make. Some of the 3′ or 4′ tall ones took up to 6 months to construct


Press Melts

41 year old Harry Bertoia is shown with one of his art pieces, all made in heavy metals, at his studio in 1956

41 year old Harry Bertoia is shown with one of his art pieces, all made in heavy metals, at his studio in 1956

bertoia by herbert matter

bertoia by herbert matter

letter to anni albers to swap sculptre for painting 1956

hans knoll in ny office with bertoia sculture

hans knoll in ny office with bertoia sculture


Rods / Straws

ceiling work

Creating the ceiling sculpture seen on the front cover in J. Kompass Nelson monograph

With ceiling sculpture front cover in J. Kompass Nelson monograph

With ceiling sculpture front cover in J. Kompass Nelson monograph



Sprays / Willows

willow sculpture

2 figures on a pedestal


Spill Casting

spill cast sculpture

After designing his eponymous furniture collection, for instance, Bertoia began exploring and developing a spill-casting technique, which is as a process of pouring molten metal onto unprepared surfaces, such as loose sand or porous brick, to create surfaces that are biomorphic or volcanic in appearance.


Nail Sculptures

nail sculpture 2

bertoia and sculpture

nails 2





A spur of the tonal experimentation was the dandelion form, which resembled a dandelion flower gone to seed.

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 the highest prices of all Bertoia sculptures

Dandelion form by Harry Bertoia

The studio (early 70s), in the foreground a Sound Sculpture, left behind a Dandelion, to the right a Welded Plant.

The studio (early 70s), in the foreground a Sound Sculpture, left behind a Dandelion, to the right a Welded Bush Sculpture



bertoia jewellery

Harry Bertoia experimented with jewellery throughout his career.

He did more detailed things with his jewellery, because it is smaller scale and more easily manipulated, allowing his jewellery to be quite playful in a way that neither the chairs nor the sculpture is.

Metal was in his blood,” Celia says of her father’s natural aptitude with the material. “He had a real affinity toward metal and knew the qualities of each type of metal and alloy and as he learned how to create jewellery, he learned more about the qualities of metal.”

Bertoia did much of his experimentation with jewellery while he attended Cranbrook in the 1940s.

This Necklace was made by Bertoia as a gift for Eliel Saarinen’s wife, Loja while Saarinen was president of the Cranbrook Academy of Art.

This Necklace was made by Bertoia as a gift for Eliel Saarinen’s wife, Loja while Saarinen was president of the Cranbrook Academy of Art.

“I think the jewellery was really his foundation and his learning process, to get the understanding of metal that he needed,” Celia says.

Some of the jewellery pieces appear to be precursors to his later sculptural work.

“There were some brooches that were wire, like wire cages with pebbles inside, or gems. And in some ways those remind me of the chairs, because of the wire construction,” Celia said

“Some of his brooches look little creatures,” Celia says. “He did all kind of sculptures like that, too, that suggested something organic or something alive. You couldn’t quite tell what it was, but looked very natural. I would say that the jewellery and the sculptures both have that.”

Hammered brass earrings, 1940s


Bertoia did not produce jewellery or hollow ware after 1950 and is not considered a traditional metal smith, but his work is deeply involved in the essence of metals.

High-society Detroit women loved Harry’s jewellery. His work became a status symbol in a matter of months. Intricate yet elegantly simple, organic yet modern, Harry’s designs are timeless

If you were any woman at all in Bloomfield Hills, you wanted to show off your Harry Bertoia jewellery.“….Marc Coir

detroit news 1943

detroit news 1943

Bertoia’s jewellery displays his experimentations with form, dimension, and fabrication on a concentrated and bankable scale — establishing Bertoia as a pioneer of the American Studio Jewellery movement and a master of elevating fashionable adornment to objet l’art”


Bent, Cast & Forged: The Jewellery of Harry Bertoia @ Cranbrook Museum Michigan


Harry Bertoia, Necklace, brass, c. 1940s. Collection of Cranbrook Art Museum

Exhibition Dates: March 14 – November 29, 2015

“This examination of Bertoia’s jewellery is not only a case study of one facet of a versatile career, but also an exploration of process and creative discovery.”

Bertoia made jewellery as a way of working out his conceptual interests — particularly the vital forces of nature and its cycle of growth and decay. The pieces in the show embody a developing visual language and artistic worldview that persevered and intensified throughout his entire career.”

Displaying 30 Bertoia jewellery works and 13 Monotype prints – this exhibition offers an early glimpse of a creative vision that would crystallize as his career matured.


Musical Sculptures

Bertoia was a furniture and print maker, sculptor, jeweller as well as being a noted musician !

His later artwork incorporated sound into steel sculptures.

Movement caused by wind and touch create musical sounds with Bertoia’s sculptures.

Bertoia’s Sonambient sculptures—which structurally emulate the forms of wheat fields, willow trees, dandelions, and cattails—attest to his life-long appreciation of music (he counted Vivaldi and Mozart among his favorite composers).

However, the decision to incorporate sound into his sculptural work came about in a rather serendipidous manner.

In his studio in Bally, Pennsylvania, Bertoia accidentally struck a metal rod while bending it and was intrigued by the sound.

According to Bertoia himself, this sound “initiated a deliberate gesture in search of understanding what a group of wires would do.”

bertoia massive scultptures 2

He began experimenting with the different tonalities associated with brass, bronze, stainless steel, and nickel alloys.

Noting that musical instruments have secondary aesthetic properties to their primary, functional designs, Bertoia reversed this heirarchy in his sculptures, so that the sonorific qualities of the sculptures are secondary to the aesthetic.

Bertoia experimented greatly with patinas and methods of casting to gain different surface textures. He also experimented with steel alloys to gain more control over the sound his work would produce.

In addition to the alloy, Bertoia manipulated the shape, length and density of the forms to achieve the sound he desired.


“I can almost play these blindfolded; I know exactly where they all are,” Bertoia, 65, says as echoes bounce from the barn walls.

“Yet something is always different — the temperature or the sunlight or the audience — and it makes it a different experience every time.”


Bertoia recalled how, as a child, he wished there was a musical instrument that anyone could play instantly.

His father and brother were musically inclined and played the accordion.

Arieto would tap his foot, not owning the same talent.

Later when a group of Hungarian gypsies came through his San Lorenzo village in northern Italy, they banged on pots and pans with a rhythmical beat, to earn money repairing pots, pans, and other kitchen utensils.

Harry found beauty in the cacophonous clanging of metals as they wielded their hammers.

These vibrations left an impression deep inside young Arieto.





The tonals are kinetic works composed of dozens of metal rods — most of beryllium copper — mounted vertically on a bronze or slate base and often capped with larger, weighted metal cylinders.

The pieces range in size from diminutive tabletop models to works towering some 20 feet.

When stroked, their ductile rods sway like blades of grass in the wind, producing a sound that is at once ethereal, haunting, and hypnotic, the pitch of each a function of its size and material composition.

These huge reverberations emanate from copper and bronze sculptures, gathered in the barn like a dense metal jungle.

The sounds are loud, formidable and meditative.

“In this way, when a sound comes, you cannot quite control it. It has its own life. You have to sway along with it,” Bertoia said in the 1977 short film “Sonambient.”

“They are very powerful. They seem to be the sounds of the bowels of the earth.”

In time, Bertoia’s Tonals would be joined by other sound sculptures, gongs and plate-clad columns, designed to be struck with a percussionist’s mallet.

sonambient bertoia (1)

As an adult, Bertoia never stopped experimenting with, playing, and enjoying his art.

The tall tonal wire pieces came about when he was bending a single heavy wire and it met another piece and made a wonderful sound.

It provoked wonder as to what two or three or twenty rods might sound like.

He never made the same piece twice, always seeking a different or richer sound with varying size rods.

Val Bertoia said the sound sculptures do not make music—you cannot play them like instruments. Rather, his father was trying to make sound uncontrollable.

“There was inspiration from nature, birds, cicadas, even frogs in a swamp,” Bertoia said. “He would hear these sounds in nature, and make metallic versions.”


Over the course of a decade Bertoia created more than a hundred tonals, gongs, and columns for the stone barn in Pennsylvania, which he used as a “sound studio” and ad hoc concert hall, offering weekly performances for invited guests.

Bertoia continued creating the tonals and Sonambient until his death in 1978

He also produced 11 recordings of his Sonambient compositions, which are being re-issued shortly, in celebration of the centennial of Hary’s birth

Harry and Brigitta Valentiner Bertoia, April, 1969.

Harry and Brigitta Bertoia, April, 1969.


Let’s say during the welding and after that time everything has been silent, no sounds were coming from anywhere, and when the welding has been completed then that framework which held the wire in place is removed, and for the first time I hear the sound which is almost hearing the cry of a newborn baby. You hear that voice for the first time and from there on in I begin to go through a period of acquaintance.” …………  Harry Bertoia



world of bertoia book schiffer 4

Bertoia’s influence spread beyond art worlds, undersea explorer Jacques Cousteau hearing his gongs and exclaiming, “Oh, my God, they sound just like whales!”

harry and double gong

bertoia with massive gong 1970

bertoia with massive gong 1970



In 1960 Bertoia embarked on his sounding sculptures “of different shapes, length and thickness in order to achieve a range of gentle and sharp sounds

When touched, struck or brushed, these sculptures became abstractions of sound as they sway and knock against one another.

The connections between Bertoia’s Sonambient work and such grand concepts as nature and the cosmos are something he apparently contemplated often.

In his 20s, Val Bertoia worked for his father as a part-maker, and remembers that in the studio he was all business.

“But there were times where he would talk, say at dinner, about how he would reach the universe with these sounds,” Val recalls. “He was very connected with nature and its energies, and he found a way to bundle these wires and let gravity form their shape.”

In the early 1970’s Harry and Val, made hundreds of sound sculptures.

These sculptures represent Harry Bertoia‘s formation of Sonambient

Sonambient was Bertoia’s term to describe the spatial and tonal environment created by these sound sculptures.

Harry Bertoia created these sculptures of different shapes, length and thickness in order to achieve a range of gentle and sharp sounds.

He experimented as a way to seek harmonic balance with the metal, resulting in pure, unique tones.

When touched, struck or brushed, these sculptures became abstractions of sound as they sway and knock against one another.

The sounds are organic and mysterious, as tones resonate and flow into each other.


Sonambient Performance by Val Bertoia

There’s not a defined ending to it, it’s not like playing piano or guitar, where you purposely end notes in order to start other notes, and that’s what Harry liked about it. He loved the idea that each sculpture was free to do its own thing.” ……. Val


After renovating the old estate barn, Bertoia collected about 100 sounding pieces, including gongs and “singing bars”, in the now acoustically excellent barn.

He went to great lengths to set up just the right tonals in the ideal order, often substituting a new experimental sculpture for a previous selection.

With technical help, he recorded eleven LP albums of “Sonambient”, which are haunting, mysterious, and at times church-like reverberations.

The rods resound on each other, the suspended sonic-bars give a Zen-like chime, and the gongs thunder in endlessly varying combinations.

The barn remains intact with the sounding sculptures set up by Bertoia, where son Val gives concerts.


Public Sound Commissions

Bertoia also created tonal sculptures as public art.

The Aon Center, ( formerly Standard Oil ) Chicago’s third tallest building.


Beroias largest sound sculpture was designed for the reflecting pool in front of the Standard Oil Building , in Chicago

Like the winds responsible for the soft rustling of leaves, distortions caused by a breeze or a draft create gentle chime-like sounds.

Harry Bertoia, 1975 Sonambient  Sounding Sculpture for the Standard Oil Plaza, Chicago, Illinois.

Harry Bertoia, 1975 Sonambient Sounding Sculpture for the Standard Oil Plaza, Chicago, Illinois.

standard oil 1

standard oil 2


Sound Recordings

Not only did Bertoia invent a new category of kinetic sound sculptures, which he called Sonambient, he also recorded 11 LPs of music and more than 350 reels of tape playing these sculptures in a renovated Pennsylvania barn that served as his gallery and recording studio.

sonambient patent

In the 1960’s, Bertoia began experimenting with sounding sculptures of tall vertical rods on flat bases.

He renovated the old barn into an atypical concert hall and put in about 100 of his favorite “Sonambient” sculptures.

Bertoia played the pieces in a number of concerts and even produced a series of eleven albums, all entitled “Sonambient,” of the music made by his art, manipulated by his hands along with the elements of nature.

The works remain as avant-garde and challenging today as they invariably were when first released, moving as they do from passages of almost spiritual beauty to unforgivingly brutal sensory assaults.

At times, Bertoia plays cleverly with subtle repetitions and patiently paced tonal shifts, creating a subconscious rhythm. In other moments, swells and rushes evoke an orchestra’s crescendos, but they rarely imitate specific musical instruments. There’s something uniquely alien about each record, offering a sound that couldn’t be made any other way.

“I had never heard anything like that,” says Val’s childhood friend Peter Greene, whom Harry enlisted to produce the “Sonambient” albums.

Bertoia chose specific tapes for each record; a few, he manipulated by overdubbing, changing their speeds or playing them backward. Most of these selections were longer than an LP side, so he tasked Greene to find suitable beginnings and ends.

In the late 1990s, his daughter found a large collection of near mint condition original albums stored away on his property in Pennsylvania.

sonambient record LP 1972 ( produced 1969 )

Sonambient record LP 1972 ( produced 1969 )

Bertoia would never know the impact of the “Sonambient” albums.

Diagnosed with cancer after making the first LP, he died before the final 10 arrived at his home.

That most of Bertoia’s music came out posthumously seems fitting for an artist whose work explored echoes and reverberations — the kind that could extend long past the act that created them.

That idea is embodied in every sound that comes from his ­sculptures.

Each contains two sidelong pieces, with such meditative titles as “Space Voyage,” “Ocean Mysteries,” “All and More” and “Sounds Beyond.”

Though the sound is abstract compared with conventional music, it’s also remarkably concrete; you can easily picture the sculptures trembling and clanging in front of you. Some portions are pure, monumental drone, while others have the random, organic aura of field recordings

It may seem odd that Bertoia recorded his sculptures at all, since sound is just one of their dimensions.

“It’s art that you both hear and look at,” Celia says of the elegant pieces. “In the barn, you actually feel the vibrations through the wooden floor. So it’s a total sensual experience.”

But Bertoia realized that few would venture to Bally to hear him perform, so recordings could bring the Sonambient experience to a wider audience

That experience, as presented by the records, is entrancing.

In an effort to save these one-of-a-kind musical artifacts, the Harry Bertoia Foundation, spearheaded by Bertoia’s daughter Celia Bertoia, along with Important Records launched a Kickstarter campaign on the 14th Feb , 2015 to raise funds to transfer the 350 analog reel to reel recordings to a digital archive.

236 backers pledged $19,581 to help bring this project to life.

Not only will the campaign preserve Bertoia’s recordings, it will also permit many previously unreleased works to finally become available.

One of Harry's session reels

In 2015, these Sonambient recordings are being re-issued by Important Records as a box set with a booklet of the history and previously unseen photos.

This will certainly be a fitting gift for one of our most original designers on his 100th birthday.

All 11 LP albums were re-issued to mark Harry Bertoia’s 100th anniversary

lp sonambient 1979

The original albums are now available on CD



Auction Bertoia pieces

“A decade ago, if you mentioned Harry Bertoia, people would say, ‘He’s just a chair designer,’ without realizing that he spent only two years making chairs,” muses Jim Elkind of New York-based Lost City Arts.

wright auctions 2014

At auction in November 2012 Bertoia’s  7-foot-wide, brass-coated Screen Tree, circa 1955, sold for an artist record $578,500 on an estimate of $150,000 to $200,000 at the postwar and contemporary day sale at Christie’s New York.

At that same sale, his 6-foot sound sculpture, Untitled (Sonambient), circa 1975, brought $422,500 on an estimate of $40,000 to $60,000.

On June 6th,  2014, auction house Wright in Chicago, presented a standalone auction featuring masterworks by Harry Bertoia from the Standard Oil commission.

They offered three massive 1970s clusters of rods from Standard Oil’s office plaza in Chicago.

standard oil commission 1

“Bertoia was really ahead of his time,” says midcentury modern specialist Richard Wright of the Chicago-based Wright auction house, who has been instrumental in cultivating the market for Bertoia since the house held its first sale of his works in June 2000.

At that time few sculptures had appeared on the block, and Bertoia’s reputation as an artist had faded to a large degree in the wake of his death.

Since then, Wright says, he has witnessed sustained growth in demand, with more than 600 Bertoia pieces passing through the house.

In 1974, at the base of Edward Durell Stone’s modernist structure on Chicago’s lakefront, Harry Bertoia composed the largest installation of sounding sculptures.

Three large-scale Sonambients, among the best to come to the market, along with a selection of table top sculptures and maquettes from the commission make up this historic sale.

bertoia wright auction


In March 2013 an 11-foot-tall Dandelion from 1961, commissioned by the Hilton Hotel in Denver, brought $566,500 (est. $150–200,000) at Christie’s New York.

Last May another Dandelion, circa 1960, a 7-foot-high gilt stainless-steel-and-brass version bearing a $100,000-to-$150,000 estimate, sold at the same house for $197,000.

Since 2007, Sotheby’s New York, which hosted a private selling exhibition of Bertoia’s work last spring, has sold four dandelions in the range of $150,000 to $230,000.

“With their radiating dynamism,” says Wright, “the dandelions are hard not to like.”

While the artist record for a bush form at auction was set by the 5½-foot-high Bush, circa 1965, which brought $446,500 at Sotheby’s in November 2010, most of these works tend to trade in the neighborhood of $100,000.

Although prices for the sound sculptures, dandelions, and bush forms have steadily trended upward, the same cannot be said for the spray forms, which have delivered a mixed performance on the block.

In April 2014, a 5-foot-high Spray, circa 1970, sold for $75,000 on an estimate of $50,000 to $70,000 at Heritage Auctions in Dallas.

In March, a smaller Spray from the 1950s sold for an eye-opening $68,750 at Sotheby’s New York on an estimate of $10,000 to $15,000.

Golden Rods,” a melt-coated wire sculpture by Harry Bertoia, circa 1959

Golden Rods,” a melt-coated wire sculpture by Harry Bertoia, circa 1959

“Whenever we have a massive piece in excellent condition, you can be sure there will be a feeding frenzy,” says Meaghan Roddy of Phillips New York, which has tendered a number of Bertoia sculptures in recent years, including the meltcoated Golden Rods, 1959, which brought $521,000 in December 2013.

This past December, the house sold a 3-foot-high Sonambient, circa 1970, estimated at $30,000 to $50,000 for the handsome sum of $134,500.


The Life and Work of Harry Bertoia: The Man, the Artist, the Visionary – Apr 2015

book cover

The brilliant mid-century modern artist, Harry Bertoia (1915–1978), left a rich legacy of art and design, each with an intriguing history.

And yet, while just about everyone has seen the Diamond Chair, few can identify Harry Bertoia as its designer. Even fewer recognize the Bertoia sculptures and other monumental pieces at various public venues.

This important volume, illustrated with over 200 revealing photos, allows easy identification and appreciation of Bertoia’s work.

Written with insights that only a daughter could offer, this impressive book also reveals the complex man behind the fascinating art.

Personal letters and family anecdotes offer a deep look into the life and motivations of this profound metal artist.


As part of the commemoration of the centennial of the artist’s birth, Bent, Cast, and Forged: The Jewellery of Harry Bertoia, Celia Bertoia reviewed the Life and Work of her Father with a special focus on his jewellery fabrication.


Some Reflections on Harry by Celia Bertoia

He was an accomplished artist, sound art sculptor, and modern furniture and jewellery designer.

Harry Bertoia was a serious but warm father of three, husband of one, and artist for all.

His short stocky build belied his incredible strength, and he could even do airborne somersaults.

He worked like a fiend, but enjoyed travel and a nice country walk.

He could not tolerate lack of integrity or lies, and set a high standard for himself and others.

harry in tshirt

When Harry Bertoia found something he liked, say for example a good pair of shoes, he bought ten of them. He hated to waste time shopping. In 1976, Harry and Celia, his youngest daughter went out shopping for an entire outfit of tie-dye purple; snug T shirt and jeans. He wore them to work often.

Always the perfectionist, it drove his workers crazy but made his customers happy.

Although not big on outward affection, he had a heart of gold and truly loved people.

Harry Bertoia bonded with a standard size poodle, Dido, and was friendly with the cats and animals at his country home.

He appreciated a good steak, medium rare, and loved ice cream, vanilla.

Listening to Italian opera and Sibellius was one of his favorite activities.

He cherished talking to young people to hear their ideas and opinions.

But his greatest passion was his art work.


Reflections by Harry Bertoia on his own ” Life and work”

reflections letter to bud

reflections letter to bud ( clifford west )


“What I feel, personally, is incommunicable. Communication is impossible, but nevertheless unavoidable.” – 1958

You see, there we enter a field in which we end up with taste. I doubt very much whether anyone could say no. 1, 2, 3 and 4 and these are criteria whereby we can judge good or bad art. It’s terribly difficult to do that. Maybe if a group were to air their ideas – a group of people of very divergent attitudes and ways of thinking – we may hear various things and say all right. It seems that there is one, or there are three, or ten points which these people seem to agree on. Really, off hand, it’s very difficult.” 1957

I prefer working in relative isolation in a place like Bally. I think artists who congregate in New York tend to excite each other too much. They begin to respond more to what others are doing or saying than to the vision within them.


Oral history interview with Harry Bertoia, by Paul Cummings

Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution

20th June 1972

Format: Originally recorded 2 sound tape reels. Reformated in 2010 as 3 digital wav files. Duration is 3 hrs

Bertoia speaks of his childhood in San Lorenzo, Italy; his family; his art education at Cass Technical School, the Society of Arts and Crafts in Detroit, and Cranbrook Academy; his early metal work and woodcuts; defense work with Charles Eames in Venice, California; development of Eames’ prize-winning plywood chair; his chair designs for Knoll International; exhibitions of his sculpture; his experiments with sound and with “sonambient” sculpture; and techniques and materials. Bertoia also discusses his commissioned works for Manufacturer’s Trust, General Motors, and Dulles Airport. He recalls John Carroll, Carl Milles, Eero Saarinen, Sarkis Sarkisian, and others.

bertoia chairs

harry bertoia

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


1 Comment

  1. Celia Bertoia - October 29, 2015

    I just ran across this post. Very impressive and thorough for a blog.

    The chair coverage is excellent.

    A few minor corrections: That is not Brigitta pictured at Cranbrook with Grotell and then later at the Saarinen tea – not sure who it is. The aluminum square ring was a test for Harry’s own wedding ring not that of the Eames. I have never seen the Eames ring for Ray (would love to). The family photo on the grass is in Pennsylvania, not Italy – only Harry and Brigitta went to Italy in 1957. Oreste did not work for Harry. Rather it was the brothers Flanagan, Ed and Jim, who worked for him and sometimes surprised him in the morning at the shop.
    Thanks for posting!

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