Experimenting with Plywood

A One-of-a-Kind Chair by Harry Bertoia

Likely his earliest seating design, the present lot presages Bertoia’s innovative works for Knoll in the 1950s. Made roughly a decade earlier, this experimental form in plywood reveals the influence of Alvar Aalto and Marcel Breuer (Lot 279) and it speaks to the short time during the war that he worked for Charles and Ray Eames at the Molded Plywood Division of Evans Products. The wooden rod construction of the seat and back points to Bertoia’s use of metal rods in his iconic wire chair designs still in production by Knoll today. This one-of-a-kind chair remained in the artist’s personal collection for many years. 

Harry Bertoia 1915–1978

Harry Bertoia was a true Renaissance man well-versed in the language of art and design. Born in San Lorenzo, Italy in 1915, Bertoia relocated to the United States at the age of fifteen and enrolled at Cass Technical High School in Detroit to study hand-made jewelry. In 1937, Bertoia was awarded a scholarship to attend the Cranbrook Academy of Art in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan where he was drawn to the mostly empty metal shop and, after two years in the program, was invited to head the department.

At Cranbrook, Bertoia was introduced to a number of designers whose names would become synonymous with mid-century modern design. Here he met Eero Saarinen, with whom he would collaborate on numerous architectural projects, and Charles and Ray Eames with whom, for a short period during the war, he would work for at the Molded Plywood Division of Evans Products in California. In 1950, Bertoia moved east to Pennsylvania to open his own studio and to work with Florence Knoll designing chairs. Bertoia designed five chairs out of wire that would become icons of the period, all of them popular and all still in production today.

The success of his chair designs for Knoll afforded Bertoia the means to pursue his artistic career and by the mid-1950s he was dedicated exclusively to his art. Using traditional materials in non-traditional ways, Bertoia created organic sculptural works uniting sound, form and motion. From sculptures sold to private buyers to large-scale installations in the public realm, Bertoia developed an artistic language that is at once recognizable but also uniquely his own.

Today Bertoia’s works can be found in various private and numerous public collections, including: The Art Institute of Chicago, Denver Art Museum, Milwaukee Art Museum, Smithsonian Institution, Washington D.C., Museum of Modern Art, New York, Musée des Arts Décoratifs, Paris, Museum of Fine Arts, Houston and the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York.

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Auction Results Harry Bertoia