From the August/September 2017 Issue  

Bertoia Diamond Chair

Writer Ren Miller  |  Photographer Jon Friedrich
  • Light and airy yet sturdy and substantial, the Bertoia Diamond Chair quickly earned its spot in the pantheon of modern furniture design. Shown with steel rods in a navy finish and yellow seat pad.

  • The 18k gold-finish edition of the Bertoia Diamond Chair honors Harry Bertoia's 100th birthday anniversary in 2015.

  • Light cascades down a full-height metal sculpture that Harry Bertoia designed for the chapel at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Sculpture takes a seat in this midcentury modern design.

The criss-crossed steel rods of the Diamond Chair look like netting casually draped over, well, nothing. But that delicate appearance belies the chair’s strength and is one reason the 1952 design became an icon of what is now called midcentury modern design.

The chair might not have happened but for some twists and turns in the life of Arri Bertoia. Arri was born in Italy in 1915 and showed an aptitude for art early in life. By fifth grade, he had become so good that his art teacher felt unqualified to teach him any longer. The teacher advised Arri’s parents to send him to Venice or the United States to study. So at age 15, Arri joined his older brother in Detroit to study at Cass Technical High School and later the School of the Detroit Society of Arts and Crafts — and his new friends Americanized his name to Harry.

Harry Bertoia went on to study at Cranbrook Academy of Art in Michigan, where he met others who became the backbone of modern American design, and expanded his interest in painting to sculpting, jewelry design and, eventually, furniture design. Knoll historian Brian Lutz once said “Bertoia’s paintings were better than his sculptures. And his sculptures were better than his furniture. And his furniture was absolutely brilliant.”

He eventually joined former Cranbrook alum Charles Eames in California, an experience that ended badly when he never received credit for his work, and later moved to eastern Pennsylvania at the invitation of his former classmate Florence Knoll and her husband, Hans, who gave their stable of artists free rein to design what they wished with full credit. It was in this atmosphere, that Bertoia completed several chair designs that Knoll introduced. The most popular was the Diamond Chair. Bertoia’s own description of these chairs: “They are mainly made of air, like sculpture. Space passes right through them.” The name stems from the overall shape of the back and the diamond shapes formed by the criss-crossed rods.

Comfort? The chairs come with an attached seat pad, and it’s important to note that Bertoia spent several years working on a project involving human ergonomics at the Point Loma Naval Electrical Lab in California.

Prices today range from $1,175 for solid chrome, black or white to about $1,200 for two tone versions.

The delicate filigreed appearance of the Diamond Chair was an extension of the open forms and metal work of Bertoia’s sculptures. In fact, despite his wildly successful furniture designs, Bertoia decided to return to his open-work sculptures (one of his most famous is the altarpiece screen at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Chapel; see photo) and tonal sculptures, or sounding sculptures, the art most often associated with him. The rods on his tonal sculptures are made of many metals, the most common being beryllium copper. The metal is known for its wide range of color variations and rich tones. Sadly, the toxic fumes from working with this metal contributed to the lung cancer that claimed his life in 1978.

In honor of Bertoia’s 100th birthday in 2015, Knoll introduced the classic Diamond Lounge Chair finished in 18k gold plating (see photo), starting at $2,033. As with most famous furniture designs, beware of knock-offs. Check for the Knoll logo stamped into the back of the base.