Man of Steel (Mesh): Harry Bertoia's Famous Chairs

Retrospect

In the design world, Harry Bertoia’s name is synonymous with his line of wire chairs made for Knoll in the 1950s, not just because those chairs are so famous, but also because he is not formally credited with making much else. Let's take a look at Harry Bertoia and how his sculptural experimentations with industrial materials yielded an important body of work both for himself and for Charles and Ray Eames.

Bertoia (image 2) was born in Italy in 1915, and moved to the US when he was 15. He studied art and design in high school and college and finally, in 1937, won a scholarship to Cranbrook Academy of Art, where he met Charles and Ray Eames, Eero Saarinen and Walter Gropius. Bertoia was heading the metal workshop by 1939. But World War II had made metal scarce and expensive, and Cranbrook suspended his workshop in 1943.

World War II demanded that designers apply their talents to the war effort. Bertoia and the Eameses moved to California to work on equipment for military application. After the war, they applied their developments in military plywood and plastics to domestic furniture. Working for the Eameses by day, Bertoia took welding classes at night. It is commonly accepted that he designed the metal base of the Eames’ famous DCM and LCM chairs (image 3).

Frustrated that he wasn’t getting credit for his designs, and ready to work more exclusively with metal, Bertoia left the Eames studio in 1946 and began making sculpture. In 1950 he moved to Pennsylvania and began a professional relationship with Hans and Florence Knoll, who produced his only collection of furniture in 1952 (images 1, 4-10). It was so successful that Bertoia was able to live off the royalties and focus solely on his sculpture.

Bertoia’s furniture line for Knoll is made of welded steel mesh with a trapezoidal base. His famous Diamond lounge chair (images 1, 4 & 5), his Bird chair (images 6 & 7), and his Asymmetric Chaise (image 8) are particularly sculptural, and all his pieces share a biomorphic sensibility, managing to convey an organic, almost anthropomorphic warmth within their metal frames. The body-conscious curves of the chairs are one obvious point of affinity with the Eames’ designs.

More striking is the similarity between Bertoia’s line and the Eames Wire Chair (image 11), produced by Herman Miller. Bertoia’s first iteration of his chair used an identical construction trick as the Eames Wire Chair: to limit cost and weight without compromising strength, the outside rim was constructed of two lighter-gauge wires welded together. The Eameses had received a patent on this design detail, so Herman Miller (who produced the Eames chairs) successfully sued Knoll and Bertoia for patent infringement. Bertoia had to redesign the chairs using a single heavier-gauge wire. It is impossible to know how Bertoia and the Eameses influenced one another, if either exploited the other’s work, or if the similarities between their pieces are simply a benign result of the collaborative process. (Are you Team Bertoia or Team Eames?)

Until the end of his life, Bertoia made metal sculpture, much of which played with sound, movement and vibration (images 12 & 13). His pieces are often meant to be touched, by human hands or the wind, in order to evoke the inner ‘music’ of the metal. He gave concerts and recorded albums using his sculpture, all entitled “Sonambient.” Both his sculpture and his furniture use metal almost as an organic material, often echoing the curves of the human body, the swaying of grasses in the wind (image 12), or mushrooms (image 2).

Bertoia died in 1978 at the age of 63, from cancer probably related to his exposure to the beryllium copper he used in his work (he knew it was toxic, but loved its resonance). He didn’t always sign his work, preferring to think of it as the invention of the universe. The year he died, he said, "Humanity will continue without me, but I am not going away … Every time you will see some tree tops moving in the wind you will think of me …"

Sources: Bertoia’s chairs are licensed through Knoll and sold at DWR (for a small fortune). Lost City Arts in Manhattan’s East Village has an amazing inventory of Bertoia sculpture, big and small, as well as his fabulous monoprints, and the proprietor, James Elkind, is incredibly knowledgeable and friendly. Sick of the Bertoia chair? Here is a controversial Apartment Therapy post on some new alternatives.

Images: 1: Bertoia Diamond chair in Joan and Johann's house tour on Apartment Therapy San Francisco; 2 Harry Bertoia in his Double Gong sculpture, via 1stdibs; 3 The DCM chair (Desk Chair Metal) by Charles and Ray Eames (1950), designed after Bertoia had been metalwork expert in their studio for three years. Via Midcentury Modernist; 4 Bertoia Diamond chair in a San Francisco home designed by Brian Paquette, images by Brenton Salo via ATSF; 5 An upholstered Diamond chair in an interior by Vicente Wolf, from Metropolitan Home; 6 The Bertoia Bird Chair from the Knoll website; 7 The Bertoia Bird Chair in the San Francisco home of Sam Grawe, Editor-in-Chief of Dwell magazine, from an ATSF house tour; 8 Bertoia Asymmetric Chaise from the Knoll website; 9 Bertoia side chairs in the home office of Will Kopelman, from the May 2007 Elle Décor; 10 Bertoia side chairs at Norma's, the restaurant at the Parker Palm Springs, designed by Jonathan Adler in 2004; 11 The Eames Wire Chair (1951) from Herman Miller; 12 and 13 Bertoia metal sculptures at Lost City Arts, Manhattan.

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