“If you look at these chairs, they are mainly made of air, like sculpture. Space passes right through them.”–Harry Bertoia
These wonky chairs take me back to sitting outside of Grinnell College’s “Forum”–a modern architectural blunder which functioned as the campus café. Students would try to pick up these chairs, too wide for the door and bafflingly bottom heavy, to take them outside to read or eat.
Spindly and surprisingly comfortable, these iconic chairs originated in the Midwest via San Lorenzo, Italy. Harry Bertoia (1915-1978) immigrated to Michigan from Italy, where he attended Cranbrook Academy of Art, befriending Chicago design icon Charles Eames and furniture visionary Florence Knoll. Trained in jewelry construction and design, he actually cobbled together the ideas for the Eames’ wedding rings.
Bertoia followed Eames (and his wife, Ray) to California in 1943 to work in their studio where they molded plywood to make spectacular and seemingly impossible furniture. WWII rationing made precious metals hard to come by, so Bertoia transitioned from jewelry-making to helping Eames fashion parts for airplanes—Eames was Director of Research and Development for Evans Products Co. at the time.
After departing from the Eames’ studio in 1946, he shifted from wood back to metal, working with Florence Knoll on furniture design at her factory in Pennsylvania. Bertoia began to bend and stretch metal, using a sculptural approach for functional objects. The diamond chair uses meshed metal to form the back support, which then eases into an armrest shape. Unlike the wooden Eames chairs of the period (slim but still opaque wood) the ‘Diamond’ has a different space-sensibility, there and not there, both a dimension and a silhouette.
The creation of the “Diamond Chair” in 1952 raised so much revenue in royalties, Bertoia left furniture for sculpture, shifting the focus of his work from tactile to sonic—he created a series of “sound sculptures,” or sculptures that would react to wind movement, including the sculpture in front of the Standard Oil building in Chicago where my Dad worked when I was a kid.
Curious, Grinnellians, as to how much these cost? A mere $2,100 each.