Harry Bertoia was one of the great pioneers of mid-century craft and industrial design. Best known for his furniture designs–especially the diamond chair for Knoll–he was also a prolific creator of sound sculptures. In a barn near his home and studio in Bally, Pennsylvania, he produced nearly 100 sonorous brass and copper sculptures during the ’60s and ’70s, using the space alternatively as a recording studio and a performance space.
Bertoia’s sound sculptures, known collectively as Sonambient, are the focus of Atmosphere for Enjoyment, a new show at the Museum of Art and Design in New York. “People perceive Bertoia so much as a designer of furniture,” says Shannon R. Stratton the museum’s chief curator. “But the length of time that he dedicated to furniture design over his career was relatively short compared to the length of his practice engaged with metal as a medium.”
Bertoia started out his career as a painting student at Cranbrook Academy of Art in the late 1930s, but was asked to take over the metal workshop soon thereafter, where he taught jewelry design and metal work (his jewelry is also on display at MAD). After graduation, he worked with Charles and Ray Eames in California before moving to Pennsylvania to make chairs for Knoll, where he produced the pieces in his Bertoia collection, the most famous of which was the diamond chair released in 1952.
The success of Bertoia’s Knoll chairs allowed him to dedicate the last two decades of his life to sound sculpture, a practice he stumbled into largely by accident. In a 1972 interview for the Archives’ Oral History Program, Bertoia explains that he had the idea for the sound sculptures after accidentally breaking a wire in half and hearing the sound it made when the two parts struck together. Long fascinated with sound, and already a sculptor, he continued to experiment with the rods and their different heights, diameters, and vibration frequencies.
In the interview, he describes his delight and surprise at the range of sounds the metal could create:
During the welding time and after that time everything has been silent, no sounds were coming from anywhere and when the welding has been completed then that frame work which held the wire in place is removed and for the first time I hear the sound which is almost hearing the cry of a new-born baby. You hear that voice for the first time and from there on in I begin to go through a period of acquaintance. The first reaction may be quite definite, but I’m never quite sure whether I like it that much or not. Then of course there’s the consideration as to what this will do in relation to the others. So it undergoes a period of adaptation and I in turn have to adapt myself to what is here.
By the time of his death, in 1978, Bertoia had installed 91 of the 100 Sonambient sculptures he created in the barn where he performed for visitors and recorded music. Today it’s maintained by his children and open to the public, the sculptures still in the same arrangement he had placed them during his lifetime. Since Bertoia instructed that the pieces stay in the barn after his death, his son Val recreated the atmosphere of the barn with 14 site-specific pieces for MAD. The curators arranged the pieces to as faithfully replicate the experience of the barn as possible.
The exhibition features several of the most common types of Sonambient, which have bundles of metal rods that sway and collide together to create a radiant ring. Others are in the form of gongs or pieces hanging from the ceiling like horizontal wind chimes. That the replicas are all designed for visitors to play themselves matches Bertoia’s intention. “That’s what he meant really, to create musical instrument that everyone can play,” says Stratton. “That is in fact what he achieved. What you hear from the platform [of the exhibit] is almost indistinguishable from Harry’s recordings.”
Clarification: The 14 sound sculptures at the Museum of Art and Design have been loaned to replicate the barn atmosphere and for museum visitors to play, but are not exact replicas of Bertoia’s original pieces. The article has been updated to reflect this more accurately.