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Designer Focus: Harry (Arri) Bertoia

The Knoll Bertoia Collection is one of the most notorious lines throughout the office furniture industry. Its play on gridwork and topographic elements is truly captivating, and when scattered throughout an office space, can be a staple in that brings your work environment to life. 

But who designed the framework for the infamous Knoll Collection?

That would be Arri (Harry) Bertoia.

Harry Bertoia, The Harry Bertoia Foundation

 On March 10th, 1913, Arri Bertoia was born in San Lorenzo, Friuli, Italy. When he was 15, he moved to America and settled in Detroit, Michigan. There, he began his new life as an American. 

It was required that he learn English and History, so he attended Davison Americanization School to familiarize himself with the new language and historical context. To re-familiarize himself with the basics, Bertoia also attended Cleveland Elementary School.

After catching up with the most necessary basics, Bertoia then pursued an academic pathway at Cass Technical High School. There, he followed a program that was especially for those who were proficient in the arts and sciences. In 1936, Bertoia was awarded a one year scholarship to attend the School of Detroit, Society of Arts and Crafts where he had the opportunity to study painting and drawing. There, he was one of the most heavily awarded students. He really built up his reputation quickly. 

In the Fall of 1937, Bertoia received yet another scholarship from Cranbrook Academy of Art in BLoomfield Hills, MI, again for painting. This academy was quite different from the rest, in that there were no degrees to be obtained; instead, it was a place for students to discover their passions. 

Six years after exploring Cranbrook and the opportunities that would come with it such as working alongside Charles Eames and Florence Schust, as well as receiving a monetarily successful offer for his pieces, Bertoia set out to California. 

Alongside Charles Eames, Bertoia set out to California to explore work with plywood. Though, soon after pursuing a welding class in Santa Monica, his designs were exploited by the Eameses, with no credit to him. The skills he learned there, however, would be the skills that would support him best in his career. 

At Point Loma Naval Electrical Lab in La Jolla, Bertoia studied ergonomics and stroboscopic photography. Meanwhile, his metal-molding pursuits carried on into the early 1940s. 

In 1945, Bertoia presented an exhibition of his works at the San Francisco Museum of Art. In 1946, he became a United States citizen. In the meantime, Bertoia was wishing to carry on his artistic pursuits while managing his personal life, and to his surprise, an opportunity arose around 1950. 

Upon moving to Pennsylvania in 1950, a peer from Cranbrook reached out in hopes of allowing Bertoia the space to flourish in design. Florence Knoll of Knoll Inc., recalled the intricacies that reigned within his work and promised him full recognition of his work. 

By 1952, his first collection was introduced by Knoll: The Bertoia Chair Collection. These are the line of chairs that you’ll most likely spot throughout the office. By 1960, his odyssey of what’s called, “tonal sculptures,” is the kind that is most heavily attributed to Harry Bertoia’s work.

The metals used were mainly rods of beryllium copper, which is a fantastic option for creating pieces that vary in height, ranging from only a few inches to a towering twenty feet high. Beryllium copper also has a wide range of variety in color, offering a wider horizon of potential creations. 

Near the end of Bertoia’s life, he spent countless hours getting his life’s work in order after being diagnosed with cancer in 1976. Feeling content with his works and legacies, Bertoia passed away at the age of 63 in his home. 

Bertoia undoubtedly left an abundance of illustrious designs here for others to delight in and remember him by.