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Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Furniture 101: The Bertoia Chair

This is our first installment of Furniture 101, a series in which we take a look at iconic pieces of furniture and  learn a bit about their history (much like we did when we posted about the Saarinen tulip table). So often I find myself recognizing a certain types of furniture, but not knowing it's official "name" or any history behind it. Thus, we're determined to take these iconic pieces of furniture and put a name with a face, so to speak, and to educate ourselves about the designer and the history behind these pieces. This may be old news for some of you, but hopefully as we delve into the history of these pieces you'll learn a little something too!

Today's featured furniture/designer: the Bertoia chair, designed by Italian sculptor, artist, and modern furniture designer Harry Bertoia.


Bertoia was born in Italy in 1915, but after traveling to Detroit at age 15 to visit his older brother, he ended up settling there and taking jewelry making classes at a technical school. After all, who wouldn't want to escape Italy for the majestic city of Detroit (we kid, we kid, but you have to admit it is a bit incongruous!). After teaching jewelry design and metal work, he married and moved to California to work for Charles and Ray Eames (yes, as in the furniture Eames) at Evans Product Company, where he drew training manuals for airplane and medical equipment. At the same time he began working with with Eero Saarinen designing molded plywood splints that would later factor into the latter's furniture design.

In 1950 he moved to Philadelphia to work for Hans and Florence Knoll. Which leads me to note that I never realized that the great names in mid century modern furniture - Bertoia, Eames, Saarinen, Miller, and Knoll - had so much direct overlap. At this time he designed a collection of five wire mesh chairs that became known as his "Bertoia Collection for Knoll," including the diamond chair. The graceful chair created out of industrial metal rods reflected the perfect marriage of Bertoia's technical background and artistic inclinations.

Bertoia Diamond Lounge Chair with Seat Pad

Incidentally, Herman Miller took Knoll to court over the design of Bertoia's chairs. Miller was making a similar type of chair and had been granted a patent for the bent-wire technique that formed the edge of the chair. The court sided with Miller, so Bertoia and Knoll had to re-design the edge of the chair using a thicker wire and grinding the side of the wire at a smooth angle. This is still the way the chairs are produced today.

Palmer Weiss

Regardless of the legal woes, the Bertoia for Knoll chairs sold so well that Bertoia was able to live off the royalties and devote the rest of his career to sculpture.

Bertoia Bush Form, 1st Dibs; Bertoia Spray Sculpture, 1st Dibs
Important and Massive Bush Form by Harry BertoiaBertoia "Spray" Sculpture

Today, Bertoia's chairs are still manufactured by Knoll. What I really love about these chairs is that, much like Saarinen's tulip table, they're at home with a wide variety of decor styles. You're not stuck in the realm of MCM; rather, they can provide a modern, hip twist to an otherwise traditional room. They make a statement, but at the same time they almost blend into their surroundings. 

Bertoia Diamond Chair for Outdoor1

As with Saarinen furniture, Knoll continues to manufacture the authorized Bertoia chairs. They come in chrome, white, and black.

Bertoia for Knoll Side Chair, Design within Reach, $481
Bertoia Side Chair

I am really loving the barstool version. So unusual. Bertoia for Knoll Bar Stool, Design within Reach, $1,111
Bertoia Barstool

Of course, as with most iconic furniture, there are many knockoffs. Sure they might be a little different than the real thing, but they do have a much kinder pricepoint. Bertoia inspired chair, Modern Collections, 2 for $339

Bertoia-inspired chair, Ebay, $39

My personal favorites are this vintage pair of burnt orange Bertoia chairs from 1st Dibs.

Pair Burnt Orange Bertoia Chairs

Around the Washington area, I've seen Bertoia chairs (or spin offs) at Miss Pixie's, and they probably get them quite frequently at the wonderful Millennium Decorative Arts on U Street, which specializes in original MCM furniture at a pretty reasonable price point. Which Bertoias are your favorites? Would you buy the knock offs or only the real deal?


spark! (Ada-Marie) said...

Great idea, gals! This post is so timely because I went to see the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts' new wing yesterday and ate lunch at the restaurant, Muse. All of the seating inside the restaurant is Bertoia chairs with tweed covers. Very cool. Can't wait for the next installment of Furniture 101!

Dayka (Life +Style) said...

i LOVE reading about the history of furniture. thanks for the info.

Marija said...

This is a wonderful post! One of my favorite chairs..even if it isn't all that comfortable. We have 4 at a conference table in our office and it makes for shorter meetings, I swear..

LouBoo said...

Hi - my Mum has the Bertoia chairs and the tulip table...not very comfortable but they look divine. I spent my childhood sitting on those chairs for dinner! To be fair they look as good now as they did 30 years ago. Timeless.

The Gimlet Eye said...

I thoroughly enjoyed this post!! Thanks for the info as well as sourcing! Jessie at The Gimlet Eye

traci zeller designs said...

Great idea for a series! I love the Bertoia chairs ... and, for some odd reason, I especially love them in their child-sized version.

dulci said...

Great write-up!

I've always loved that Domino img.

Miriam said...

I'm currently searching for some white Bertoia chairs for our new house and I just can't get myself to get the knock offs. It's such a beautiful design - I want the REAL THING!!! Now if I could just find them at a garage sale...where they didn't know what they had... : )!

Anonymous said...

I had a friend growing up whose parents had a set of these chairs. They were uncomfortable. Now that I am grown up I can appreciate the look even if they are still uncomfortable. I found some decent reproductions at a store here in Manhattan.

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