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TBT: The Bertoia Collection

I’ve always been been fascinated with Knoll‘s Bertoia chairs ever since first encountering them in Paley Park on East 53rd Street in Manhattan.

Paley Park is a modernist’s version of a pocket park tucked in between the high-rise buildings of midtown. In front of the waterfall at the back edge and among the slender trees, the park is full of Bertoia chairs for passersby to take a moment and withdraw from the hustle and bustle of the city.

Paley Park, East 53rd Street, Manhattan
Paley Park, East 53rd Street, Manhattan

In digging into the how this collection came to be, I had to find out more about the designer; Harry Bertoia was born in Italy, and moved to the United States to pursue an education in art. His talents led him to study at the highly esteemed Cranbrook Academy from 1937-1943. During his time there, he developed important relationships with staff members and fellow students including Eliel and Eero Saarinen, Charles and Ray Eames, and Florence Shust (later; Knoll).

Vintage Large Diamond Chair and Ottoman with Cover
Vintage Large Diamond Chair and Ottoman with Cover

In 1943 he joined fellow classmates, Charles and Ray Eames, in California. He worked with them on developing the molded plywood forms and tubular support system that would become the iconic Eames chair. It is widely believed that Bertoia also contributed to the design of other Eames classics, including the Eames Wire Chair, and the molded plywood DCM and LCM Chairs as well. In joining his friends at the Eames Office, Bertoia expected to be recognized for his contributions as when they had been classmates at Cranbrook, but over time, realized this wasn’t going to be the case. Ultimately, Bertoia left the Eames Office to pursue other opportunities.

“If you look at these chairs, they are mainly made of air, like sculpture. Space passes right through them.” –Harry Bertoia

From here, Bertoia took a job writing technical manuals and studying the movements of the human body, what we now call ergonomics, at the Point Loma Naval Electronics Laboratory. A great education, but hardly the work he was yearning to do. As the 1940’s drew to a close, he received a surprise visit from his former classmate and her husband, Florence and Hans Knoll. They approached him with a very tantalizing proposition: If he would come design for Knoll Inc., they would give him free reign to design whatever he liked, in whatever manner he chose, in addition to giving him total credit for anything he designed. Florence Knoll was sure that Bertoia, given the opportunity, would design something brilliant for Knoll to manufacture. The only thing holding him back was that he preferred the California climate to that of Pennsylvania, where Knoll Inc. was located.

Pair of Diamond Chairs, circa 1960
Pair of Diamond Chairs, circa 1960

Fortunately, Bertoia’s wife accepted the offer on his behalf, and in 1950, Bertoia and his family relocated to Pennsylvania to be close to the Knoll factory. With his own studio, Bertoia experimented with forms and shapes, drawing on his knowledge of the human body, and his skills as an artist and metalworker. He began playing with chair forms that would comfortably hold the body when seated, reclined, and leaning forward. This experimentation led a series of chairs, released in 1952, known as the Bertoia collection, which has been in continuous production ever since.

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Robert Laterza

Robert Laterza

Robert Laterza, Founder & Managing Director of FindersUnion, is a recovering architect, aspirant yogi, and devoted father. In addition, he has an insatiable appetite for home magazines, design blogs, and auction catalogs. In moments of repose, you’ll find him listening to Charlie Parker or watching an old film while reading about it online.

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