Harry Bertoia's Untitled sculpture, which resembles a bush.

Harry Bertoia

American, 1915–1978

Untitled, c. 1976

Bronze and copper

8 1/2 x 13 1/2 inches

When Harry Bertoia immigrated to the United States from San Lorenzo, Italy in 1930, he witnessed and participated in an energetic movement in art fueled by the country’s rapid modernization. With his family, Bertoia first settled in Detroit, and attended the renowned Cass Technical High School and later the Art School of the Detroit Society of Arts and Crafts. In 1937, Bertoia obtained a teaching scholarship at the Cranbrook Academy of Art, the progressive school founded by Detroit newspaper magnate George Gough Booth and Ellen Scripps Booth. The school’s curriculum was centered on the unification of fine and applied arts, a European model most clearly defined at the German Bauhaus. Cranbrook was a hotbed of American modernism, fostering the careers of Charles and Ray Eames, Eero Saarinen, and Florence Knoll.

Bertoia’s interest and expertise in metalwork unfolded at Cranbrook. He opened the school’s metal workshop, and first applied the medium to the fabrication of small tableware objects and jewelry. Bertoia eventually expanded and enlarged his repertoire as his career progressed and he learned more technical metalworking skills, such as welding.

During World War II, metals were reserved for the war effort and Bertoia’s studio at Cranbrook closed. He left the school for California, and together with fellow Cranbrook alumnae Charles and Ray Eames, designed furniture and worked on war contracts for the Evans Products Company. Drawing from the knowledge he developed at Cranbrook, Bertoia designed the innovative metal base of the iconic molded plywood Eames chair. After the war, he was invited by Florence Knoll to join her husband’s newly formed company in East Greenville, Pennsylvania. Bertoia’s wire lattice furniture series, his only design for Knoll, cemented his reputation as he secured both private and public commissions for his sculpture.

Metal was Bertoia’s preferred medium throughout his career, yet he constantly innovated and challenged the properties of the various metals with which he worked. He first created wire and platform sculptures, and then worked on larger panels and architectural screens that were seamlessly interwoven into interior settings. Around mid-century, Bertoia created spherical and ovoid-shaped plants, trees, and flowers—natural forms he observed from his studio in rural Pennsylvania. Using welded bronze, brass, copper, and gold-plated steel, the deliberately ambiguous sculptures reflect Bertoia’s interest in organicism. Bertoia continued to produce these forms during the 1960s and 1970s with variations in scale, foliation, and patina.

Harry Bertoia's Untitled sculpture, which resembles a bush.