“The Mediterranean Came to Flavor My Existence”: Harry Bertoia’s Midcentury Italian American Aesthetic
Earlier this year I read a post on Nick Rossi’s blog, A Modernist, about the American designer Arieto “Harry” Bertoia, whose iconic metal chairs I was familiar with but whom I had never thought about as Italian American.
Nick Rossi’s piece, a thoughtful overview of Harry Bertoia as a maker of a midcentury modern aesthetic also noted, in passing, his Italian background:
Bertoia was an Italian-American who had come to this country from Northern Italy (via Canada) at a young age, studied alongside some of the legends of modern design, and even spent a few years during the 1940s living in my hometown of San Diego, California.
Rossi goes on to reflect on not only Bertoia’s famous chairs, but
also his musical and sculptural experimentations. In the case of his commissioned work for Zenith, Rossi explains:
All were Bertoia's attempt to provide some physical representation of the forces behind the relatively new phenomenaof television….The sculpture itself has a sheer presence that photos can barely capture. The slow alternating pulsation of the lights gives the impression of some sort of bio-mechanical organism.
Rossi’s post garnered a significant comment, from Bertoia’s own daughter, Celia Bertoia; her comment further sparked my interest in Bertoia:
A little history: Harry lived in Italy until age 15. In 1957, he was granted a chance to visit Italy for the first time since moving away, some 25 years later. He got so excited and gained so much energy from his journey to his former country that he began to construct huge bursting shapes. This was just one such burst, and later came the dandelions in a more refined sunburst form.
And so what do we make of his Italianness?
I’ve written elsewhere here about visual artists whose work does not read primarily as Italian American but whose work seems to suggest an Italian ethnic identity of some kind. It’s not about trying to recuperate Italian identities for me but rather trying to understand how artists position their work with and against their own lived experiences—consciously or not.
I finally got ahold of Bertoia’s oral history, recorded on June 20, 1972, and housed at the Smithsonian Archives of American Art.
He narrates details of his relationship with many of his former art teachers as well as his peers—Charles Eames, Eero Saarinin, Florence Knoll (née Schust), Hans Knoll, and others. But he also touches on his childhood and his relationship to Italy. In those moments we might begin to consider how his creativity reflects a particular Italian ethnic midcentury sensibility.
Playboy Magazine, July 1961, From left to right: George Nelson, Edward Wormley, Eero Saarinen, Harry Bertoia, Charles Eames and Jens Risom.
As a child and teenager in Italy (San Lorenzo, in Friuli), Bertoia recalls always drawing with whatever kind of drawing implement he could get his hands on: “even to get ahold of a pencil was very difficult.”He continues, describing that “at the age of 13 or 14, I was asked to attend a night class in the neighboring town. Our town did not have a drawing teacher” and only had a school up to the “third or fourth grade.”
Detail from the Zenith Corporation installation
He explains that his interests were not just about drawing but in construction—something that would later be echoed in his emphasis on furniture and sculpture: “my interest was in building with what kind of little material I could find, building little houses, playgrounds, constructions that were possible with what was available.”
His early interest in the mechanics of building is also a thread found in his description of some of his art school training later in Michigan, when he says that at the Cranbrook School he was able to experiment with wood and metal:“I saw some of the tools that were there [at Cranbrook] and when I see tools I want to get busy with them”.
A workshop at Cranbrook, 2012
Throughout his storytelling he also recognizes ways his family supported his interest in the arts, even indirectly. I quote at length:
I recall my father’s brothers (they were five brothers) had some interest in the arts. They themselves played some instruments and occasionally they would get together, chamber music you know. This to me was a great event. I would listen almost enchanted by whatever sounds they produced and during these sessions also they would talk and discuss and I always paid attention to their conversation which quite often drifted out to the arts. They would tell their personal experiences, one would visit Rome and so forth and would tell about what he had seen and well the names of Michelangelo and so on came and to me it opened up a new world. I didn’t know really who Michelangelo was and I did not know what he did but by the sound of that conversation, by the way they presented it it surely drew my attention and I became more curious and I looked into more and more, and so whenever the occasion arose my tendency was to draw towards the arts rather than any other activity.
When he emigrated to Detroit in 1930, his older brother, who was already settled in the U.S. and working as a laborer for Ford, advised him to study rather than immediately look for work: “he was very instrumental in encouraging me to go to school.” And that’s what he did. First at the Cass Technical High School in Detroit, then the Detroit Arts and Crafts School, and finally at the influential Cranbrook School.
(As an aside, he also explains that he was not drafted into the U.S. army during WW II because of a complication with his residency documents: “It turned out that my entry to Detroit was by way of Canada and the destination was Windsor and not Detroit and therefore this made my entry into the United States illegal and so this had to be ironed out”.)
Commissioned Bertoia "wall screen" that used to be at 510 Fifth Avenue, New York City
In this retelling of his life, Bertoia reflects briefly on the trip that his daughter notes on Rossi’s blog post. After 30 years, he returned to an Italy that he did not know at all; not so much because of the changes that had occurred in Italy, but because as a youth he had only experienced what was accessible to him by bicycle.
And this really was to me so wonderful because for the first time I began to sense that continuity that existed all along, from the Greek spirit, southern Italy and other parts, in other words the Mediterranean came to flavor my existence, and the few coastal towns I saw I thought each one just a dream. Amalfi, Sorrento, just beautiful. The light was so enchanting as a matter of fact that I couldn’t possibly find it conducive to work. You know work requires an amount of battling and the light is so beautiful it would have to be observed, waste time in watching it. Italy was that enchanted portion of my life—brief as it was but still meaningful.
The references here to how his travels informed his future work are pretty abstract —made more concrete by his daughter’s reference to the “huge bursting shapes” he went on to construct. The meaning of this “enchanted portion” of his work is an aspect of Bertoia’s oeuvre still to be unpacked as we develop new ways of conceptualizing Italian American visual culture.
Bertoia in his studio
[Special thank you to Jeanne V. Diller and the Oakland Public Library.]