Harry Bertoia and the Evolution of a Design

mainphoto In previous posts we have written about 20th century jewelry designer’s who’s work has as been described as wearable art or sculpture.  Harry Bertoia and Alexander Calder were considered the early innovators of jewelry as sculpture, their jewelry being unlike anything that had come before it.

2015 is the centennial year of the birth of Harry Bertoia (1915-1978) we are fortunate again to bring and discuss a unique piece of his jewelry that adds to the understanding of his early metal work. Harry Bertoia’s legacy continues to grow more than thirty years after his death. His sculptures give pause, his work is thought provoking and remains in the mind long after the eyes and ears leave the piece.  The ingenuity of his touch lingers in the mind, often leading you to compare it to other sensory sensations due to his sculptures’ combined visual and audible attributes.

Bertoia seemed to master every medium he touched from wood, metal, sculpting, jewelry, painting.  The impressions he left on people who met and worked with him lasted a lifetime. Casual mentions from those who knew him are almost always genuinely warm and he maintained many lifelong friendships.  Unlike some artists, his interactions with people are a testament to a unique, kind and generous human being.  His artist voice is clearly missed, but due to his body of work he is also still very present in our world.

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Maholy-Nagy once made a comment to the effect that it was vital – if not paramount – that a pupil be given the chance to explore his own creativity before the exposure to formal education within a field so as to prevent the pupil from making not only the mistake of judging his later work by what “he had learned was good” but to also inhibit the oddity of seeing people go down singular narrow paths influenced by the material.

Bertoia was a naturally artistically skilled & gifted long before he undertook a formal education in the arts.  As a child he made various objects and designs before his immigration to the U.S. and attendance at Cass Technical High School.  After Cass he attended the Detroit Society of Arts & Crafts, and most notably and important was his admission to the Cranbrook Academy of Art (1937-1943).  His time at Cranbrook Academy of Art and the people he met fostered life long relationships with would help solidify his place in history as he created object after object in what seemed to be a never-ending stream of new, unique and innovative designs and creations.

The President of Cranbrook, the famous architect and father of Eero, Eliel Saarinen requested that Bertoia (age 24) reopen and supervise the metal working shop at the art academy.  It was during this time late 1930’s and 40’s that he primarily produced the abundance of his jewelry during his off hours at the school.  All his jewelry was handmade, implementing only traditional pre-industrial techniques that were labor intensive.  The production techniques may have been ancient, but his designs were on the cutting age of 20th century design. Creating groundbreaking creations which set the standard for the modernist jewelry movement that was to come.

Fewer pieces are available for discussion that date to his time at Cranbrook and again, even fewer pieces that date to pre-1940.  These years, however, are important to

A pendant? It's over 7 feet wide.
A pendant? It’s over 7 feet wide.

understanding the aesthetic Harry was developing as he matured as an artist and craftsman.  An artists early work is gives light as to how they started to develop and those traits or hallmarks are usually a characteristic reflected within their body of work until death.  In recollecting some early works we have seen of  other modernist jewelers such as De Patta, Kramer, Wiener & Radakovich I am reminded how the some of the most interesting pieces seems to be earlier in their career.   Bertoia’s jewelry – sculptures in themselves – required pain-staking time and effort to execute and they formed a fundamental basis for his sculptures that came later.  Calling them “jewelry” is a misnomer for what they actually are – small sculptures. You can view a photo of a Bertoia sculpture  (jewelry or otherwise) and not know if it is 3″ wide or 9 feet. It is ironic that metal shortages in the late 30’s and 40’s would force him to abandon building large metal sculptures until later, so he would express instead these ideas in the form of sculptures fit to be worn – jewelry.

Bertoia was born in Italy in an agricultural environment, and as we all know images, shapes and experiences as a child are imprinted whether we are consciously aware of it or not, so let us study some of the shapes a young man in 1920’s Italy may be have seen in a rural environment and compare them to shapes and ideas later expressed:


We also know about Bertoia’s understanding and appreciation of organic shapes – some of which were the result of viewing fossils. Here are many examples and you can clearly see many elements worked into his jewelry and sculptures:

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One of the most impressive pieces of Jewelry ever made which I was fortunate enough to see in person.
One of the most impressive pieces of Jewelry ever made which I was fortunate enough to see in person.

Of particular note was the effect a brooch we were fortunate enough to see some time ago by Harry Bertoia, dated in the early to mid 40’s consisting of a singular central element with “fish bones” or legs that hung through and from the central body.  As the owner allowed it to move in front of me, hold it and observe the kinetic motion the elegance of it was singular.  I was memorized by the appearance of simplicity and under study the revelation of a vast complexity that lay beneath the metal known only to the jeweler and not the viewer.  I was to learn only several of these existed (none identical, featuring various element changes especially in the number of legs) and I always have wondered as to the origins of the design which even as I write I still do not fully understand.

mainphotoThis piece featured here (right) has been dated by the Harry Bertoia Foundation to have been created between 1938-1939 making it one of the earliest pieces, but also a forerunner to similar pieces later performed in the 40’s which were fundamental in his sculptures that followed in design element.  This piece is the earliest known “legged” work by Bertoia and of note later pieces would be brooches which allowed – in my opinion – several important aesthetic factors to be added to the equation which I will touch on shortly.

Of particular note is the material being brass and also the use of just two sets of legs and an abbreviated “third”.  All later developments of this piece would be performed in sterling, comprise of more “legs” and all be brooches.  It is contemplated the addition of more legs gave the piece an aesthetic balance that Bertoia was looking for but the addition of legs also meant the weight and size grew – thus brooches became the best vehicle for the art. However, in addition to this, the brooch gave Bertoia another advantage.

When viewing his pendants one notices clearly the “dots” at the bottom of every pieces central element, this is where the connector went through to have a pin behind the brooches.  This simple mark/feature gave a new balance to the pieces also. Let us look at a known progression of these elements through 1938-early 40’s.


Of course, there could be no better balance other than it being worn, and as such the artist’s intention actually comes to life as a smile is imparted, which is what Screen shot 2015-03-05 at 11.47.29 AMwas and is behind Bertoia’s ideas.

This year Cranbrook’s Art Museum will be hold an exhibit on Bertoia’s jewelry entitled “Bent, Cast and Forged: The Jewelry of Harry Bertoia” opening on March 13, 2015 and will run until November 2015.  It is the first major exhibit to concentrate solely on Bertoia’s jewelry.

We also note later in March a new book on the work of Harry Bertoia is being released, authored by his daughter Celia Bertoia.


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