Harry Bertoia did not take a conventional route into the world of furniture design. Unlike many of his contemporaries who trained first as architects (Arne Jacobsen and Eero Saarinen to name but two) Bertoia had a metal workshop and also designed jewellery. He even made the wedding rings of Charles and Ray Eames, designers of the famous lounge chair.
Born in Italy, Bertoia went to Detroit at the age of 15 to visit his brother and never went home. He enrolled in college to learn jewellery making and in 1937 he started work as a teacher at the Cranbrook Academy of Art where he met Walter Gropius of the Bauhaus School, as well as the Eames.
He subsequently left Cranbrook to join the war effort and went to work at the Eames’ office in Little Venice in California. After several years experimenting with moulded plywood, the Eames were then making wooden leg splints for the Navy. They would go on to create the iconic LCW chair, which, in 1999, Time Magazine named the best design of the 20th century. While working with them, Bertoia enrolled in a welding class at the Santa Monica City College.
He began making huge sculptures but was then invited to work for Knoll Associates (he had met Florence at Cranbrook) and made the Diamond chair in 1952.
In a video about the Diamond Chair, a spokeswoman for Find Me The Original explains how the Diamond collection came about. Bertoia already knew Florence Knoll and when she was looking for new furniture it was natural that she would turn to him first.
“He specialised in using metal wires which was a new material. He was also unusual because he worked in 3D and did not draw his designs first but welded them as he went along.
“Florence invited him and he accepted because it was going to be called the Bertoia collection.”
Bertoia was given his own studio and Florence told him: “Do what you do with metal and if you can come up with some furniture, so much the better.”
Two years later, he had made the Diamond. He was obsessed with the idea of how light travelled through space and later said of the chair: “If you look at [them], they are mainly made of air, like sculpture. Space passes right through them.”
The collection grew to include both a small and large Diamond as well as the high-backed version, also known as the Bird, and a cafe chair with a low back.
Knoll calls his chairs innovative, comfortable and strikingly handsome. “The chair’s delicate filigree appearance belies its strength and durability,” says its brochure.