Sculpting a varied career

Harry Bertoia is best known as a designer of midcentury wirework furniture, such as his iconic Diamond chair.

These designs not only brought Bertoia fame but sufficient “fortune” to pursue his passion for sculpture. 

igns not only brought Bertoia fame but sufficient “fortune” to pursue his passion for sculpture.  Today, while Bertoia’s chairs can be found at auction for as little as $200 to $300, his legacy is increasingly built on his sculptures, which are highly sought after and can command prices into the six figures.

Bertoia (1915-78) was blessed with his family’s artistic talent and enjoyed a long and varied career as a teacher, metalworker, designer and sculptor.  As a teenager, Bertoia emigrated from Italy to join his older brother, Oreste, in Detroit, where he honed his artistic skills. In 1937, he was awarded a scholarship to the prestigious Cranbrook Academy of Art in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan. At Cranbrook, Bertoia studied painting and metalwork and began to produce his own jewelry. In time, Bertoia was hired by Cranbrook to teach metalworking, jewelry design and graphic design. All the while, Bertoia created his own monoprints and jewelry, which he promoted through Cranbrook and the Nierendorf Gallery in Manhattan. 

Harry Bertoia’s Bush sculpture (1970s), patinated bronze and copper, sold for $53,125. Image courtesy Rago Arts and Auction.

It was through his association with Cranbrook that Bertoia met Charles Eames and Florence Knoll who would foster his career as a furniture designer. In 1943, Bertoia moved to California to work with Eames on chair designs. Then in 1950 he moved to Barto, Pennsylvania, to work for Knoll Associates. At Knoll, Bertoia designed his wirework seating, including the Diamond, Bird and Bikini chairs. The designs were an immediate success and, within three years, Bertoia left Knoll to concentrate on his sculptural works.

Bertoia was soon engaged by prominent architects, such as his friend Eero Saarinen, to create sculptural screens for significant American architectural projects. Among his most ambitious was the 1954 screen of 800 floating metal panels, some 70 feet in length, which was installed in Manhattan’s Manufacturers Hanover Trust Co. (visible today in the North Face store at 510 Fifth Ave.). In all, Bertoia produced some 50 large-scale screens, sculptures and fountains across the country.

Works on a relatively more intimate scale included panels, wire constructions, welded plants and his Sonambient-sounding sculptures.  Among his most charming pieces are his welded plants, including dandelion and sunburst sculptures and bushes of patinated metal. Bertoia’s Sonambient-sounding sculptures are formed of copper, steel, bronze and brass rods, which vary in size from a few inches to nearly 20 feet. The rods are commonly capped with cylinders or drops and, when the closely placed rods sway, they emit sounds — what have been termed visual music. Bertoia installed a multitude of these tonal sculptures on his property in the late ’60s, giving performances and producing Sonambient recordings.

Sound sculptures were Bertoia’s major interest in the ’70s with his son Val often collaborating with his father on these pieces. After Harry’s death in 1978, Val became the manager of the Bertoia Studio and has gone on to produce his own sculpture and Sonambients.

“Bertoia’s sculptures have been on a mostly upward trajectory for the better part of two decades with some flat parts but seldom any downswings,” according to David Rago of the eponymous auction house, which sells many Bertoia pieces. “Bertoia was a genius and he was prolific and there is a critical mass of fine and varied material to both maintain interest and find new collectors.”

The panels, bushes and Sonambients garner the most attention and achieve the highest prices at auction. There is variation within Bertoia’s work and there is a corresponding good, better and best hierarchy to value. A Bertoia bush that is more robust, with a colorful patina, can reach $50,000 at auction and will fare better than sparser, metallic examples. Bertoia’s Sonambients recently have been achieving the $40,000 to $60,000 range at auction and, as a result, Val’s works are gaining momentum. Even so, a visual music sculpture by Harry will bring eight to 10 times more than a similar piece by Val.

Rago notes that three-quarters of his Bertoia consignments come from their original owners, many local to the Delaware Valley, where Rago has the advantage of being in the same location in which the objects were made. While buyers of Bertoia works are mostly American, Rago foresees a more international audience, as the worldwide interest in American midcentury design continues to grow.  With the number of avid fans increasing in Europe, it’s only a matter of time before Bertoia pieces increasingly travel to foreign shores.

 For more, see Nancy N. Schiffer and Val O. Bertoia’s “The World of Bertoia” (2003). And for more on Jenny, email jenny@ragoarts.com or call 917-745-2730.

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