The Seed of Sculpture

Bertoia's Jewelry Design

Bertoia had a natural talent for working in metal. At Cranbrook he ran the metal studio and often created jewelry for his colleagues and classmates.

Harry Bertoia had a natural talent for working in metal. He was first taken by the material as a child in Italy when he encountered a group of gypsies hammering copper bowls. He 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 Academy of Art. 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 he would explore throughout his life. Throughout this time, he made jewelry, often for fellow colleagues and Cranbrook alumni. Loja Saarinen, wife of Eero Saarinen, commissioned Bertoia to create a ring for her. He later designed a wedding band for Ray Eames for her marriage to Charles, as well as a ring for the wife of classmate and architect Edmund Bacon. Even after the metal shop was closed due to war restrictions, he would salvage and make jewelry 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.

Harry Bertoia with a student in the Cranbrook metal studio, 1939

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. The early examples offered here, created around his time at Cranbrook, express a dynamic spontaneity found only in nature. His brooch the early 1940s, a spider web of silver woven rhythmically around an ebony center, is evocative of primitive art while displaying sophisticated, modern lines. Bertoia’s fishbone pendant appears almost as if it were an ink drawing pulled from the page, and his brooch from 1943 recalls a cellular organism as seen through the lens of a microscope.

His jewelry exists almost as scaled-down sculpture.

His later jewelry works draw from nature in less obvious ways by implying energy and life through surface and line. As he grew more successful as a sculptor, Bertoia’s production of jewelry slowed, occasionally making pieces as gifts for friends. His jewelry from the 1970s exists almost as scaled-down sculpture, and suggests the forces of nature rather than elements of it. The bracelet offered here is a feat of craftsmanship, consisting of a continuous coil attached with a single weld. The tension is palpable, as if the pent-up energy of the tightly wound bronze thread should spring open at any moment. Bertoia’s  Gong pendant exudes energy from its surface, the hammered silver reflecting light and absorbing shadow, mimicking how sound waves would ripple across one of the artist’s full-sized gongs.

For Bertoia, the relative ease of making jewelry during his time at Cranbrook was akin to sketching, a place to try new ideas and explore. It is here where he began to examine the building blocks of nature on a microcosmic level and where his art takes full form, leading to his breakthrough work as a sculptor. Later in life, Bertoia’s his jewelry reflects his understanding of the natural world on a much larger scale, harnessing energy, light and form to create the dynamic works for which he is most well-known. 

One prevailing characteristic of sculpture is the interplay of void and matter. The void being of it is no exaggeration to say, the reality of sculpture is to be found in the void. Matter simply being an introductory device to the essential.

Harry Bertoia

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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