The Late harry Bertoia might be best known as the designer of the “Diamond” chair, a masterpiece of welded steel that gives the impression of sculpted netting, but he was, in fact, a prolific and wide-ranging artist who made jewelry, prints, sculpture, and more. The Museum of Art and Design (MAD) currently has two exhibitions honoring this Renaissance man, “Atmosphere for Enjoyment: Harry Bertoia’s Environment for Sound,” which explores his work with sound sculptures, and “Bent, Cast, & Forged,” a display of the jewelry he created.
“The Harry Bertoia exhibitions are a perfect fit for the museum as they highlight an artist who is perceived as both designer and an artist—and with roots in disciplines associated with the studio craft movement,” said MAD’s William and Mildred Lasdon Chief Curator Shannon R. Stratton. “The shows give insight into the bookends of Bertoia’s career—his very earliest explorations in jewelry and then his last work in sound, which was truly a culmination of a lifetime of inquiry into both metal as a material for sculpture and the possibilities of interpreting the immaterial through the material.”
The title “Bent, Cast, & Forged” reveals exactly how Bertoia liked to make his jewelry. Having moved from Italy to Detroit at the age of 15, he studied art and design and learned the skill of handmade jewelry making. He later attended the Cranbrook Academy of Art, where the collection usually resides, currently on loan to MAD. The compilation of jewelry and monotype prints uncloaks the origins of his creative vision. His experimental approach to form, dimension, and material give a glimpse to the nascent talent of a man who would go on to be a pioneer of the American Studio Jewelry movement and a master of elevating fashionable adornment to objets d’art.
Going from his first artistic expressions to the culmination of his career, “Atmosphere for Enjoyment: Harry Bertoia’s Environment for Sound,” explores Bertoia’s sounding or tonal sculptures—sculptures using tall vertical rods that would produce auditory effects meant to connect the viewer/listener to the environment. In 1968, he set up an 18th-century stone barn to house a selection of these sound sculptures, which still stands today. MAD has recreated the experience of the “Sonambient Barn” by designing the exhibit to produce the same tonal and atmospheric effect as if the visitor were in the barn itself.
Bertoia was attuned to the physical-ephemeral connection in life. “Man is not important. Humanity is what counts, to which, I feel I have given my contribution,” he said shortly before his death in 1978.