Welcome to the Harry Bertoia: Sculptor of Sound Virtual tour! Click the images above for more information and links to sound and video files on the specific artworks.
One day, in 1959, Italian American artist Harry Bertoia was bending wire in his workshop in Bally, Pennsylvania when suddenly the wire snapped and made a sound. This intriguing noise sparked an idea, and Bertoia began experimenting with metal rods and wires to create unique sounds that could not be heard within a standard musical scale nor produced with normal instruments—he called the resulting artworks “sounding sculptures.”
Throughout his career, Bertoia worked in a primarily abstract style, with reference to natural objects. He utilized such materials as aluminum, beryllium copper, brass, bronze, metal alloys, and steel. Many of his tonal sculptures are made of rods, capped with cylinders, which look and sway similar to cattails. His sculptures made of multiple wires, attached to a base on the floor, resemble grassy fields, whereas others constructed of thin, draping stainless-steel wires resemble weeping willow trees.
When played together, the sounding sculptures create a unique sonic atmosphere that envelopes the visitor in sometimes gentle, sometimes cacophonous, chiming, ringing, and clanging. Within this kinetic environment, one can see how Bertoia not only manipulated physical materials, but the medium of sound as well. From 1960 until his death in 1978, Bertoia created over 100 of his beloved sounding sculptures. After decades of creative exploration, he had evolved from a painter to printmaker, jeweler to furniture designer, and then, finally, sound sculptor.
As a child, Harry Bertoia was exposed to music as his father and brother were quite musically inclined. Although young Bertoia had his own artistic talents, he always wished for a musical instrument he could play with no training—this idea became a reality when he began making sounding sculptures in 1959. As Bertoia created numerous sounding sculptures, he eventually needed somewhere to place these works of art. He remodeled the barn on his property in the late 1960s to house his large collection. In the early 1970s, the barn also functioned as a recording studio where Bertoia and his brother, Oreste, recorded eleven albums playing Bertoia’s sculptures. He named these recordings “Sonambient,” a term coined by Bertoia to describe the “sound environment” created by his sculptures. Bertoia’s sound sculptures envelop listeners in ringing, clanging, and chiming noises as they undulate and sway.
Resulting from experimentation with bent wire, the Diamond Chair was the first piece of furniture Harry Bertoia designed for Knoll, Inc. It was introduced in 1952 and continues to be a popular chair sold by Knoll today. The Diamond Chair is made from welded wire molded in a diamond shape. This “grid” gives the chair its shape and creates a pattern of diamonds on the chair’s underside. Both functional and ergonomic, the Diamond Chair epitomizes great furniture design of the mid-twentieth century.