Harry Bertoia (1915-1978) made a foray into furniture design in the 1950s with Knoll Associates that was brief, but so powerful and enduring that the royalties alone from his series allowed him to turn his attention to sculpture for the rest of his life.
Born in Italy, Bertoia moved with his parents to America in 1930 and he attended Cass Technical High School in Detroit.
On a scholarship, he went to the Cranbrook Academy of Art in 1937. When he started, he concentrated on printmaking and drawing, selling his work through a gallery in New York.
In 1939 he established a metalworking and jewelry studio there and became head of the department, remaining in the position until 1943. While at Cranbrook, Bertoia began a relationship with his colleagues, Charles and Ray Eames, that would extend into a complex working relationship.
Bertoia married Brigitta Valentines and joined the Eames in their California studio in 1943. They were involved in a wartime project for the Evans Product Company, providing technical work for airplane and medical equipment. Bertoia was also drawing training manuals. At this point they began to experiment with molded plywood under the auspices of their Plyformed Products Company, which was later bought out by Evans. With Eero Saarinen they developed a method for making molded plywood splints that would later evolve into processes for designing furniture. Bertoia remained as part of their staff, working on a variety of projects, until 1946 when he left because, conjecture reports, he felt unduly overshadowed by the Eames and was not receiving any specific credit for his work, a recurring complaint from the busy office during that period.
In the 1950's he struck up a working relationship with another Cranbrook classmate, Florence Knoll, who had a studio in Pennsylvania and offered Bertoia a flexible and supportive environment in which to design.
He produced his immensely popular steel mesh series of furniture for them, which included the "Diamond" chair, one of the most prevalent images of modern furniture design. The pieces grew out of a sculptural aesthetic, and Bertoia wrote that when looking at the chairs you could see that "space passes through them." Indeed, their frames are so delicate and skeletal that in the Knoll print advertisements it is sometimes hard to see the chair at all. They were produced with varying degrees of upholstery over their light gridwork, and they were handmade because a suitable mass production process could not be found.
Unfortunately, the chair resembled an Eames chair so closely that Herman Miller, Eames' distributor, took Knoll to court on the grounds that they were taking wrongful credit for a bent-wire technique owned by the Eames. Herman Miller eventually won and gave Knoll a license to produce the chairs, but knowing that the Eames and Bertoia worked closely for so long, the "genealogy" of inspiration seems difficult and maybe even unnecessary to pin down.
After the 1950's Bertoia retired from furniture design, although he remained as a consultant to Knoll until the 1970's.
The sculptural work that he produced on his own explored the ways in which metal could be manipulated to produce sound. By stretching and bending the metal, he made it respond to wind or to touch, creating different tones. He performed with the pieces in a number of concerts and even produced an album, Sonambient, of the music made by his art.