Furniture 101: The Bertoia Chair

Furniture 101: The Bertoia Chair

Style : 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?

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