Designer Spotlight: Harry Bertoia

Known for his skill as an artist as much as his talent for design, Harry Bertoia was a man of many talents. His most famous furniture designs stemmed from his passion for metalwork and his countless hours spent tinkering in a metal shop in the corner of Florence Knoll’s factory.  

Bertoia was born in in the small town of San Lorenzo, Italy in March of 1915. From a young age, Bertoia displayed his passion and aptitude for the arts. According to the Harry Bertoia Foundation, as a child Bertoia would spend his time drawing rather than doing his chores and local brides would ask him to design the embroidery on their wedding gowns. Bertoia even received lessons from a local art teacher but was then was told that he could no longer receive lessons because his skills had surpassed those of his educator.

(Photo Credit: Knoll)

At age fifteen, Bertoia was given the choice to continue his artistic education somewhere else in Italy or to travel to the United States where he could learn more about the arts. Bertoia chose to come to America and moved to Detroit in 1930. He chose Detroit because his brother had been living in the city and had already built a foundation in the U.S. for his family.

After spending his teenage years finishing his traditional education, Bertoia enrolled at the prestigious Cranbrook Academy of Art in 1937. While students at Cranbrook don’t receive degrees, they’re exposed to a variety of artistic outlets and influential creators. While at Cranbrook, Bertoia met architects and designers like Carl Milles, Walter Gropius and Eliel Saarinen. He also met Florence Knoll at Cranbrook and that friendship led to one of his most famous creations.

(Photo credit: Knoll)

Bertoia’s expertise in metalwork led to the creation of his wire furniture collection in the early 1950’s. Bertoia’s design had become wildly popular and he became a leader in the mid-century modern design movement. His use of flowing lines and fascination with asymmetrical shapes created a distinctive style that was recognized and beloved around the world.

By the 1970’s, Bertoia had created such a name for himself that he was commissioned to create a 13 foot tall sculpture to commemorate the plane crash that took the lives of 75 members of the Marshall University football program. Shortly after the commission, Bertoia learned that he had developed lung cancer after being exposed to many different varieties of harmful metals and chemicals from his metalwork. In late 1978, Bertoia passed away peacefully in eastern Pennsylvania.

Even decades after his passing, Bertoia’s influence can still be seen. Even with a career shortened due to illness, Bertoia created over 10,000 pieces of work in his lifetime and it continues to inspire future designers.