Harry Bertoia & the diamond chair – insight into industrial design.

1952 Harry Bertoia Jig
1952 Harry Bertoia Jig for the diamond chair

The creation of the diamond Chair at Knoll, released in 1952 is one of the most iconic chairs ever produced, but it almost did not happen. In researching the history of the chair a truly incredible moment occurred when a lost piece of history was unearthed in Pennsylvania only recently.

This is the first Jig designed and used to produce the diamond chair. Primitive in appearance, almost a sculpture it represents the pinnacle efforts of Harry Bertoia and his team to overcome the problem of how to produce the designed chair, and without, would have seen the chair vanquished as impossible to produce.

Within Celia Bertoia’s book released earlier this year, The life and work of Harry Bertoia,  earlier recorded interviews by those at Knoll at the time discussing the difficulties of the chair from patents through to production – so difficult that it almost did not happen, have been published, giving insight into the frustration of having a great chair, but not being able to actually produce it.  It was not until the book was already in print that the Jig was discovered much to the delight of the last remaining member of the team at Knoll still alive today – Richard Schultz; who welcomed it’s re-discovery and imparted vital information which glues together the various pieces of information recorded about this important moment.

A great design, but how to build it?
A great design, but how to build it?

Within the book by Celia, the section on the chair’s production covers many pages as this was a turning point not just for Harry Bertoia, but also for Knoll as a company.

The importance of the jig photographed here is substantial in that not only did its creation pave the way for the production of the diamond chair, moreover it would serve as the basis for Knoll research into production techniques that would ultimately result in the later production of many other designers’ chairs that without the known production techniques developed earlier would have been impossible.

The Barn Team

Working within a barn purchased by Knoll some miles from the facility, it would become a list of famous names of the era. Harry Bertoia, Don Petitt, Dick (Richard) Schultz and Bob Savage. They had the chair, the only problem was… how on Earth to produce it in any quantity?

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Some of Harry Bertoia’s early sculptures have remarkable resemblance to this instrument.

At first Harry designed a structure he thought could produce it, but still leaned towards his way of hand-crafting which could never work on an industrial scale. It was overly complex and abandoned. Time followed and Bob Savage (often referred to by the team as their Leonardo for his mastery of welding) came up with the idea of using channels to bend the wires. This however also ran into problems as the machines required to couple to the device would be overly complex – and with a quote from an industrial design company stating the machines would cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, it too was abandoned.

It was in a moment of deep contemplation in a team meeting that Harry finally broke out  masonite and placed pieces strategically, took a long strand of wire and bent it around the blocks and stated this is how to do it – but this was still no way to produce it on a commercial or industrial scale.

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The channels held the wires in place and the clamps tightened the hold as the rods took shape. It was easy to use. Holes not photographed allow the rids to be inserted so each starting point is identical.

As a team, Bob Savage’s idea of channels came into play.  Using the blocks that had been placed on a single plain, the channels were laid down over the differing heights and finally, a jig was formed. There is was. It could easily be produced, it could rotate for the worker and as long as it was precisely engineered, it would work without requiring hundreds of thousands of dollars.

The precision of this instrument despite appearances can not be overstated, it is measured to precision and even with rust on it, still rotates near endlessly when given a push.

It was then very shortly after that Dick Schultz was sent to Europe to export this idea of production for the Knoll facilities there. In talking with Dick he recollected how the moment it clicked, he was off abroad very quickly. He recognized the jig photographed here as it being the first and how it had unusual features on it, such as the wheel spoke design and primitive appearance. He spoke to us about how up until this point every single prototype chair that had been produced had to be done by hand until this Jig was designed.

An example of how jigs are often conceived and engineered using wood and a single plain to allow the construction of the metal jig envisioned.
An example of how jigs are often conceived and engineered using wood and a single plain to allow the construction of the metal jig envisioned.

In Industrial design it is a fascinating insight into the birth of the Diamond Chair and the work conducted by a small team of brilliant minds to develop techniques that overcame production problems that perhaps today we take for granted with industry.

Historically, the Jig represents the first industrial design by Harry Bertoia to resolve not the problem of design, but production, and what a success it proved to be.

Appearing primitive, this jig is a precision instrument that today works as well as it ever did.
Appearing primitive, this jig is a precision instrument that today works as well as it ever did.

So, where was it all these years? We can thank an executive at Knoll who passed away not so long ago, and his relationship to the Bertoia’s not only on a personal level but also at Knoll in his business capacity. It was years later that the barn was to be emptied, and within it the history of the company. Without realizing the importance of the prototypes and objects held within the barn, they were carelessly discarded to the trash pile. From this pile, he took it and kept it all these years not too far from the Knoll facility, yet over the years it was forgotten and left on the porch as a sort of Bertoia sculpture (the family had other objects from Harry Bertoia gifted to them).

This object has been saved and is now documented by the Bertoia Foundation and completes the picture of what transpired in 1952 in that barn that resulted in the Diamond chair finally coming into existence.

Celia Bertoia takes a look at her fathers Jig still attached to the old wood block from the house where it has been hidden since the 60's
Celia Bertoia takes a look at her fathers Jig still attached to the old wood block from the house where it has been hidden since the 60’s

 

 

 

 

 

 

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