Harry Bertoia

American, 1915 - 1978

LEFT: Sonambient, c. 1960s, copper on bronze, 36 3/4 x 7 3/4 x 7 3/4 inches

RIGHT: Sonambient (Eleven Rows), Beryllium copper and brass, 16 x 2 x 5 inches

Untitled (Wire Bundle), c. 1967, steel wire, bronze, silver solder, 30 1/4 x 5 1/2 diameter inches


Harry Bertoia was born on March 10, 1915, in San Lorenzo, Udine, Italy. Until age 15, he attended school in Arzene, Carsara. Even then, his talents were recognized, and in addition to going to school, he often designed wedding day linen embroidery patterns at the request of local brides. He then attended Cass Technical High School in Detroit, going through a program for gifted students in the arts and sciences. Bertoia received a number of scholarships, and was able to continue to study drawing and painting at the Art School of the Detroit Society for Arts and Crafts, and later, at Cranbrook Academy of Art. Cranbrook, was, at the time, a creative hive, housing the likes of Carl Milles, Maija Grotell, and Walter Gropius. Bertoia’s peers included Florence Shust (Knoll), Charles Eames, and Eero Saarinen. While at Cranbrook,  Bertoia met Brigitta Valentiner, the daughter of Wilhelm Valentier, director of the Detroit Insitute of Arts and the foremost expert on Rembrandt in the U.S. She fell head over heels for Harry, and they were married in 1943.

In 1939, Eliel Saarinen requested that Bertoia stay on and re-open the metalworking department at Cranbrook. He obliged, and continued his own artistic pursuits, making one-of-a-kind prints. With no sense of how they might be received, Bertoia sent 100 of these prints to the Guggenheim Museum for evaluation. Hilla Rebay kept them all, buying some for herself and some for the museum. 19 of the works were exhibited at the Guggenheim, alongside pieces by Moholy-Nagy, Werner Drewes and Charles Smith. Bertoia had the most works by a single artist in the show.

In addition to his prints and sculptures, Bertoia made numerous smaller items—often as gifts for friends and fellow artists. These included a number of small pieces of jewelry, many of which were exhibited at Nierendorf Gallery in New York, as well as a tea set for Eliel Saarinen, and the wedding rings for Charles and Ray Eames, and Edmund Bacon. He then delved headfirst into the design world, working with Charles Eames in California, making plane parts and ultimately solving the problem of how to mass- produce the infamous Eames/Saarinen chair that won the MOMA furniture design competition. After receiving no credit for his work, he moved to Pennsylvania and was able to freely create and design, showing his sculptures and chairs at Knoll Gallery in New York.

In the 1960’s Harry Bertoia embarked upon creating his sound or “Sonambient” or “tonal” sculptures which would be one of the most important innovations in the realm of sculpture in the 20th century. It is believed that he had an “epiphany” when he struck a metal rod while working with it and was taken with the sound it produced. It is important to note that his focus was on working with various alloys and metals to develop certain tonalities but that the air and space around these works was just as important in his thought process. He designed these works in his barn in Bally, Pennsylvania and was said to hold concerts where he would play his Sonambient. These works are significant, as they relate the design world to the musical world, Bertoia being a bridge to connect the two. These “sound” sculptures helped to change the notion of what sculpture was in the 20th century—his works were aesthetic feats that integrated stunning design principles with the unprecedented function of creating music and sound.

From 1953 to 1978 Harry Bertoia worked on large commissions, creating over 50 public sculptures that now live in towns throughout the United States. Bertoia was hired by the greatest architects of the time including Eero Saarinen, Henry Dreyfuss, Roche & Dinkeloo, Minoru Yamasaki, and Edward Durell Stone & I M Pei. He received the AIA Craftsmanship Award in 1956 and the Critic's Award in 1968.

Harry Bertoia died on November 6th, 1978, and is buried in Barto, PA, on his farm. After his death, his wife Brigitta and his son, Val, continued his musical legacy and gave concerts for family and friends.