Haunting, church-like, soul-cleansing. When it comes to the sounds produced by Harry Bertoia’s musical sculptures, there’s no shortage of words to describe them. While most associate Harry Bertoia with the iconic, diamond-shaped chairs he created for Knoll, chairs were only a small part of the equation for the Italian-born sculptor and designer. His true muse? Metal. Bertoia was transfixed by metal and the ways in which it could be manipulated to create not just furniture and sculpture, but sound.
In the 1960s and 70s, Bertoia embarked on the creation of what he called his “sonambients;” free-standing sculptures composed of metal. Aesthetically, the sculptures resembled dozens of solid metal rods bored into a compact, metal platform. But because the rods were typically made of beryllium copper, a ductile type of metal used to make loaded springs and coils, the rods swayed when touched—hence making them “playable.”
Bertoia was of the conviction that art be accessible to all, and his sonambients were no exception. “He envisioned many people having their own affordable Sonambient sculpture to play at their whim,” says his daughter, Celia. As it is, one only needs the most minimal of skills to play a Sonambient. The rods can be spiraled or clapped between hands, brushed, or even hugged. The sounds they produce range from delicate and chime-like to booming and frenzied, like a rain hammering down on a galvanized roof. When several sonambients are activated at once, their sound is thunderous. In a word, they’re meditative.
Video courtesy of Harlow Figa and Sarah Moses, co-directors and producers of ‘Bertoia,’ in association with The Harry Bertoia Foundation, the Woodmere Art Museum and Bertoia Studio. Learn more about their fundraising efforts for this project here.
Born in the small Italian village of San Lorenzo in 1915, Bertoia’s artistic skills were recognized at an early age. According to family, a grade school-age Bertoia was enlisted by local brides-to-be to create their wedding embroidery patterns. Although he didn’t play an instrument as a child, Celia recalls that as an adult he often reminisced about, “the musical evenings of accordion, strings, voice and percussion played by local folks.” At age 15, Bertoia moved to America to further his art education. He attended both the School of the Detroit Society of Arts and Crafts and the prestigious Cranbrook Academy of Arts alongside design contemporaries like Charles Eames and Florence Knoll.
Both Eames and Knoll would later play pivotal roles in Bertoia’s career. After Cranbrook, Bertoia would move to Southern California to join Eames in experimental plywood testing. Although he made considerable contributions to the development of the Eames chair, he did not receive credit, and the 1950s once again saw him moving cross-country. This time to Pennsylvania, to work for Florence Knoll’s burgeoning Knoll Furniture company.
Despite the losses he took in Southern California, it was there that Bertoia first learned how to weld and first began to experiment with metal sculpture. His lightning rod moment, however, came when a piece of wire he was working with snapped in two and the two ends struck one another, thereby creating a euphonic ping. Instantly, he was captivated. If two small wires could make such a prolific noise, what would larger wires do? What would a whole orchestra of wires do?
To answer the question, Bertoia began constructing his sonambients. As his collection grew, Bertoia began to throw concerts in his barn. Recalling the concerts, Celia describes a scene in which, a dozen or so spectators sat seated in Bertoia chairs along the sidelines of the barn. “He did not so much perform as he did channel,” she says. “He wanted to release the sounds of each sculpture in all its glory. His face became intently focused and serious as he moved silently, almost cat-like, through his orchestra. It started somewhat quietly, stroking a few tonal sculptures here and there. While there was no actual tune or rhythm, there was a sort of communal breathing and swaying of the sculptures.”
While his family clearly reveled in the performances—“I always walked out of that barn a different person,” Celia recalls—Bertoia desired a way to reach a larger audience, and began recording his performances on vinyl. In 2011, thirty-three years after his death, Bertoia’s full vision came into fruition when his 11 recordings were finally translated to compact discs and released by Import Records.
With his recordings now available to the public, one might consider Harry Bertoia’s wish list fulfilled, but for Celia, who founded the Harry Bertoia Foundation—in large part to ensure that in the age of the aggrandized art market, a segment of his art continued to be made accessible to all—was adamant that the efforts not end there.
Celia’s first endeavor was to reissue limited editions of Bertoia’s smaller metal jewelry designs, including an early fish bone brooch with a surrealist edge, and an interpretation of his own self-designed, block-style wedding ring. Next, she turned her attention to the Sonambients. Some of the smaller ones she felt, lent themselves perfectly to replication for the average home.
She chose the Table Tonal, specifically for its size, as well as its medium—beryllium copper, which was Bertoia’s favorite. After much deliberation about whether or not beryllium copper would be used for the sonambients reissue (as the medium gives off a toxic fume when heated), the Foundation managed to locate a California-based welder who could reproduce the beryllium copper rods exactly as Bertoia intended them.
When asked to describe the sound of the Table Tonal, Celia admits it is difficult to put the ethereal sound into words, but to come close says, “words such as ‘mysterious,’ ‘other-worldly,’ ‘pleasing,’ and ‘soothing’ arise. While it has an obvious metallic tone, it really emits more soft and gentle sounds than we normally connect with metal. Once, when Harry was asked if he thought metal was cold, his face softened as if speaking of a beloved child and he explained, ‘I don’t associate temperature with metal. I think sometimes metal can be very soft. It can have qualities that heretofore probably have not been explored. Maybe the word cold is associated with other shapes, other forms. But in this instance [in Sonambient] I wouldn’t really say it is cold.’”
Our suggestion? It’s pure radiance.