When thinking back to the work of Italian-born, American designer Harry Bertoia, it’s easy to just simply summarize him as a modern furniture designer. And why not, his most popular piece is The Diamond Chair, which gained celebrity not only for its lattice steel wire backing and fluid form, but in a legal battle against Herman Miller for its use of double wires on the edge of the seat—a design originally conceived by colleagues Charles and Ray Eames. Debunking this belief is "Bent, Cast, and Forged: The Jewelry of Harry Bertoia," a 30-piece exhibition of Bertoia's earlier jewelry pieces, along with thirteen monotype prints, at the Cranbrook Art Museum in Bloomfield Hills, Mich., opening on March 14 and running through Nov. 29. The exhibition will also open with an ArtMembers’ reception on March 13, from 6–8 p.m., featuring a lecture from Celia Bertoia, Harry Bertoia’s youngest daughter and director of the Harry Bertoia Foundation.
“This examination of Bertoia’s jewelry is not only a case study of one facet of a versatile career, but also an exploration of process and creative discovery,” said exhibition curator Shelley Salim, Cranbrook Art Museum’s 2013–2015 Jeanne and Ralph Graham Collections Fellow, in a press release. “Bertoia made jewelry as a way of working out his conceptual interests — particularly the vital forces of nature and its cycle of growth and decay. The pieces in the show embody a developing visual language and artistic worldview that persevered and intensified throughout his entire career.”
The works on display include brooches, necklaces, and pendants, all made out of different metals such as gold, silver, and brass—some of which are adorned with ebony, plastic, and patina. Bartoia’s signature organic shapes take different forms, varying from delicate, elongated limbs similar to seaweed to blobs likening insect pods. Although they come off as much more playful than his furniture, you can still see the same forms repeated throughout this smaller scale work, but can tell he reveled in having more control of the medium.
As the first exhibition devoted exclusively to the designer’s jewelry, it pays homage to the Cranbrook Academy of Art alumni and former Metalsmithing instructor, who later went on to make metal furniture and large bronze and copper sculptures. However, his earliest explorations in metal design began while he was still a student at Cass Tech High School in Detroit, where he decided to stay and pursue design at the ripe age of 15 , in the early 1940s.
During his educational career at the Academy from 1937–1939, he showed great promise in his silver-plated utensils works. Afterwards, he opened his own metal workshop, teaching jewelry designs and metalwork from 1939–1943. However, wartime rationing during World War II forced him to work on a smaller scale, creating jewelry from melted down metal scrap from the shop—including wedding rings for Charles and Ray Eames and Edmund Bacon’s wife, all of whom he met during his time at the art academy and later worked with. Out of the hundreds of jewelry pieces he created, a majority were produced at his years here in the early 1940s.
According to Selim, while he was at Cranbrook he also began to produce monotype prints, several of which will also be featured in the show “to illustrate how the artist harnessed the same intuitive and experimental approach to making in his planographic compositions.”