Harry Bertoia had a natural talent for working in metal. He first learned the craft of metalsmithing while attending Detroit’s Cass Technical High School and by the young age of twenty-two was invited by Eliel Saarinen to oversee the metalworking studio at Cranbrook. Bertoia’s experience at Cranbrook was his artistic awakening. From 1937-1943 he was an integral part of the artistic ferment of the famed school. As Eliel Saarinen commented in an address to the American Institute of Architects in 1931, “Cranbrook is not an art school… it is a working place for creative art.” And Bertoia worked: he ran the metal studio, learned printmaking and developed his monoprint technique that we would explore throughout his life and he formed a connection with Charles Eames. Throughout this time, he made jewelry. Even after the metal shop was closed due to war restrictions, he would salvage and make pieces from scrap. When Bertoia left Cranbrook to move to Los Angeles to help create the Eames Office, he held a sale of jewelry to raise money for his travels.
Bertoia was always influenced by nature. His famed Dandelion and Bush Form sculptures pay direct homage to the natural world. In his jewelry, Bertoia often took an almost microscopic perspective with the anthropomorphic forms of amoebas and insects. One of the masterpieces of Bertoia’s early jewelry work is the Ornamental Centipede from 1942. This work is in the permanent collection of Cranbrook Art Museum. The brooch offered here is directly related to this form expressing dynamism of movement in its overall shape. The myriad branching shapes are delicately chased and each is beveled from the center to better reflect light. Like Calder, Bertoia used no industrial jewelry fastenings in the creation of this jewelry. The elements are connected through rivets with no use of solder. The backing pin is hand-shaped and the elaborate clasp is self-designed and hand-forged.
For Bertoia, the relative ease of making jewelry was akin to sketching, a place to try new ideas and explore. The present lot appears almost as a drawing, come to life and ready to burst from the page. It is in Bertoia’s jewelry where his art first takes full form and moves into the third-dimension leading to his breakthrough work as a sculptor.
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 studied under the direction of Maija Grotell and Walter Gropius. Bertoia was drawn to the mostly empty metal shop, and after two years in the program, Bertoia 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.