Harry Bertoia, the Designer of Steel

During the mid-1900′s a movement began sweeping through the artistic community. The industrial revolution near 100 years in the past, utilitarian was still the mainstream, but there were a few men that cut a swath through this norm; architects, fashion designers, and jewelry designers. Furniture designers began to cast off the cheap, utilitarian designs in favor of pushing the envelope and bringing raw emotion and art back into their designs. Harry Bertoia was one of those men.


Harry Bertoia
Harry Bertoia

Harry Bertoia was born in San Lorenzo Pordenone Italy on March 10, 1915. Although his true birth name was Arri, he was often called Arieto which means “little Harry” in Italian, and which eventually led to his American name of Harry.

He had a brother named Oreste, and a sister, Ave. Unfortunately there was a second sister who passed away at the age of eighteen months, and later became the subject of one of Harry’s first paintings. Harry went on to become known as an American artist of Italian decent, sound art sculptor and also became a renowned Mid-Century modern designer of furniture.

Harry became known for his artistic talents at a very young age and was well sought after by the local brides in his home town for the designing of their wedding day linens embroidery patterns.

Harry’s father took him at the age of fifteen to visit his brother Oreste who was residing in Detroit. What was supposed to be a visit resulted in Harry staying with his brother, and continuing his education in America.

His Education

Harry had attended high school in Arzene, Casara up until he left for America. Now living with his brother he enrolled in Cass Technical High School. This was a school that offered a program specifically for students who excelled in the arts and sciences. His subjects of study here were art and design and this is where he became educated in handmade jewellery making. Following this, he entered into the Art School of the Detroit Society of Arts and Crafts. He was now able to expand his studies to painting and drawing. He was successful at placing in many of the local art competitions. With a scholarship he attended the Cranbrook Academy of Art in Bloomfield Hills Michigan. Cranbrook was the home of many famous artists and designers such as Carl Miles, Walter Groupius, and several others. Harry’s time here in Cranbrook played a very significant role in his future.

His Early Working Years

In 1939 Harry started his own metal workshop. Here he taught jewelry design and metal work. Eventually he moved to California where he took up work at the Evans Product Company in their molded plywood division. By this time he had taken a wife by the name of Brigitta Valentiner. Harry continued in this line of work until the war ended.

It was 1950 when Harry established a studio in Pennsylvania and began working with Hans and Florence Knoll. It was during this time that Bertoia designed the 5 wire chairs called the Bertoia Collection for Knoll, that he has now become so famous for, with the two most favorites being the Bertoia Wire Side Chair and the most famous Diamond Chair.

Harry’s Contribution to Furniture Industry

The world would have missed out on a great deal of beauty if Harry’s talents had not been used in the world of furniture. Throughout his career he designed some stunning Mid-Century modern furniture pieces that he has become famous for.


Harry Bertoia Wire Side Chair

Bertoia Wire Side Chair

Harry designed the Bertoia wire side chair in 1952 of which it is comprised of welded steel rods and an upholstered cushion. It is currently made in the USA by Knoll. This chair began as an experiment of Harry’s with the bending of metal rods to not only become a work of art but to possess some practicality. Harry certainly achieved this with the Bertoia wire side chair that not only depicts artistic beauty, but strength, durability, and longevity in comfort. Harry’s amazing artistic talents had allowed him to turn a component such as metal into a work of art that depicts sophistication with a delicate appearance. The chair is best described in Harry’s own words, “If you look at these chairs, they are mainly made of air, like sculpture. Space passes right through them.” The chair portrays a classic yet modern design that has the unique ability to enhance any place where it may be used. It is a Mid-Century modern work of art that remains as popular today in the world of furniture as it did in the 1950′s.


Harry Bertoia Diamond Wire Chair

Bertoia Diamond Wire Chair

This is another chair from the Bertoia Collection and perhaps is the most popular. It again depicts Bertoia’s artistic talents and amazing ability to turn welded steel into a functional piece of art. It is comprised of light grid work that flows together beautifully and is enhanced with a simple but impressive upholstered cushion. It has an open concept that makes what potentially is classed as a heavy material into one that is light and airy. The diamond shaped metal grid is aptly supported on steel legs that have been intricately molded to provide strength, durability, and exceptional comfort that is enhanced with a simple but well constructed cushion. The Bertoia diamond wire chair is graceful and enhances any decor that it is added to.

The Bertoia collection of chairs, are an exceptional addition to Mid-Century modern furniture. Composed of the durability of metal, this chair is appropriate for both home and office use. The black and white frames with the vinyl seat cushion version stands up well in an outdoor environment, when properly cared for with adequate protection against the elements.

Bertoia was famous for his belief in negative space. This belief rings true as the different, albeit slight, alterations to the design through the years. Each model varies slightly from the last, only changing slight angles or adding different materials such as cushions to change the affect just slightly.

Bertoia Asymmetric Chaise

As if striving to push the Mid-Century modern movement to its very bounds, Bertoia developed his asymmetric chaise. Utilizing the wire lattice design he had become known for, he warped the functionality of his piece into what is arguably one of his most notable pieces after the diamond chair. While the asymmetric chaise did not garner quite as much attention, its unique artistic design showcased Bertoia’s love of sculpture that he was most known for.

A Lasting Mid-Century Modern Influence

It’s hard to speak of the mid-century modern movement without mentioning Bertoia. From creating masterful sculptures which resonate melodious tones, to iconic jewelry that utilize many of those same lines. From working with laminated plywood, to creating one of the most iconic furniture designs in history Bertoia furthered how we looked at form by creating designs whose sleek lines and use of negative space still influence designers today. While styles come and go in furniture like in many other industries, and colors and trends may be short lived Mid-Century modern furniture designs of Harry Bertoia have withstood the test of time, and are every bit as popular today as they were in the 1950′s.

Harry is truly a master of modern furniture design. Modern day furniture stores are enjoying continued success in their sales of the Bertoia diamond chair as well as others. Even many of the techniques Bertoia utilized are still in place by some of the most prolific designers. This artist’s furniture has the ability to fit in with any type of decor or theme and this adds to its popularity that still remains today. It has an aura of intrigue about it in its simplicity yet modern look that blends in nicely with the old or the new. Bertoia’s financial success with the Bertoia diamond wire chair collection allowed him to concentrate on other forms of art like his sculptures, which have become a favorite of many art collectors.