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20 August 2021
How one of the most significant chairs of American modernism is born
A designer stolen from sculpture, this is how Harry Bertoia could be defined, one of the fathers of American modernism and the experimentation of metals that characterizes its furnishings. Born in Italy, Arieto Bertoia follows the family to the United States, where his father had emigrated in search of work in the early 1900s. From an early age he showed sensitivity and curiosity towards art and craftsmanship and a marked talent in drawing. To the point that, still a teenager, the family encouraged him to attend an evening drawing school. At fifteen, he decides to move to Detroit with his brother who gives up his studies to finance his diploma. This gesture will lead Bertoia to graduate and then access the Cranbrook Academy of Art, the leading art school in the United States, a hotbed of talents and a close-knit community that will mark the designer’s career. The director of the school was Eliel Saarinen who offered him a scholarship and a professorship, expressly asking him to experiment with metalworking.
Cranbrook, in fact, was an experimental school, in which there was no boundary between art and architecture and apprentices and professionals from various fields worked together. At that time the academy was joined by Eero Saarinen, Charles Eames and even Florence Schust who later became Florence Knoll and played an important role in Bertoia’s activity as a designer.
Bertoia continues his experimentation on metals over the years, participating in the studies on seating together with Charles and Ray Eames. At the same time he is passionate about graphics and sculpture. In the 1950s, furniture enters a new era, the “contemporary” trend spreads, which appreciates functional, familiar, light furniture, breaking with tradition. And it is during this period that Hans and Florence Knoll contact Harry Bertoia and offer him a position in their company. The Knolls gave the designer carte blanche, who within the company was invited to experiment.
In this context, Bertoia’s application of the wire mesh was born: the post-war need to contain costs and the desire for light and functional furnishings go very well with Bertoia’s style. Influenced by his passion for sculpture, by his research in the graphic field and, above all, by his decades of experimentation in metalworking.
The Bird chair was born in 1952: its name is due to the formal evocation of the profile of a bird spreading its wings. The structure is characterized by a chromed steel rod grille, shaped to accommodate the body. Above it rests a fabric that makes the seat more welcoming, even though Bertoia’s original idea was to leave it naked and celebrate the beauty of metal.
One of the cornerstones of modernism is precisely the ennobling of materials at the time considered, with a negative meaning, industrial. Until then, metal was not used in furniture except for technical elements that were then hidden. Bertoia, like the Eameses and also Mies Van Der Rohe, enhance and highlight this material.
Let’s not forget that the designer’s “first love” was sculpture and just like a sculpture he conceived this seat. Which wins for its design profile and comfort, also completed by the footrest element. Even today, Knoll is the sole manufacturer of Bertoia’s seats characterized by the recurring motif of the metal grill, a distinctive and ever-present element.
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