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Getting wired with Harry Bertoia

Take a good look at Harry Bertoia’s Diamond chair. You’d probably say it was made of wire but Harry had a different take. "If you look at these chairs, they are mainly made of air, like sculpture. Space passes right through them,” he said.

Harry is not among the most well-known of the designers whose products we sell at Pash and his name is not revered like Eames or Knoll but he is still one of our favourites and worked with both these husband and wife teams.

The Diamond chair was actually created while he worked for Hans and Florence Knoll. Harry had arrived in America from his native Italy in 1930 at the age of 15, literally starting out with nothing. However, he learnt to become a jewellery maker at high school, eventually winning a scholarship to Cranbrook Academy of Art. There, he soon took over the metal workshop and began making sculptures from – you guessed it – wire.

The forms he produced were, in the same spirit as his furniture, very much about the relationship between structure and space. Like a jazz musician, the key to Harry’s work is all about what he leaves out as much as what he leaves in.

Metal shortages during the war brought Harry’s career in sculpture to an end but, after conflict ended, he was invited by the Knolls to become part of their studio. In 1950, he produced the Bertoia Collection, five pieces including the Diamond chair and the wire side chair also sold by Pash. Sold in a variety of metals other than the original polished chrome and with a wide choice of fabric covers, they became instant bestsellers. You can see why. Perhaps no other chair allows you to create a sense of space than a Bertoia, while they are also beautiful and practical.

Royalties from Knoll allowed Harry to follow his own interests and we just love what he did next. Using tall vertical rods and flat bases, he started producing “sound sculptures” that were played as unconventional musical instruments. Eventually, he filled an old barn with more than 100 of these sculptures, putting on concerts and even recording 11 albums.

The sound sculptures have grown in stature since Harry’s death in 1978 and can today be seen in the Brooklyn Museum and the Smithsonian American Art Museum while his recordings were this year reissued in a new box set.

Given the quality of his designs, it’s something of a shame that Harry didn’t produce more furniture but he has our utmost respect as someone who spent a lifetime following his own creative path.

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