ST. GEORGE — The legacy of Harry Bertoia, an iconic Italian artist who largely influenced the “modern” furniture movement of the 1950s, is being carried on through a St. George-based foundation in his honor.
As the face of the Harry Bertoia Foundation, his daughter, Celia Bertoia, said that her father was much more than just a furniture designer.
He was a jack-of-all-trades artist who was heavily involved in all of its forms including painting, abstract sculpture and jewelry making. In the 1960s, he joined a few artists to create sonambient sounding sculptures, a musical instrument using rods and wires that acoustically resonate when struck against each other.
To keep the memory and legacy of her late father alive, Celia Bertoia started the Harry Bertoia Foundation in 2013.
Celia Bertoia first moved to St. George from Montana about a year ago, and opened the Harry Bertoia Foundation Gallery in January.
“Now that I’ve been here and know the town a little better, I’m planning on opening the doors to the locals,” Celia Bertoia said. “A lot of the business I do is with New York and California. And probably many people in St. George have never heard of Harry Bertoia, so it’s my job to make them understand who he was.”
Born in Italy on March 10, 1915, even as a young child Harry Bertoia showed great aptitude for art.
“He always knew that he wanted to be involved with art,” Celia Bertoia said. “He didn’t know exactly how, but when he was a teenager in rural Italy, anytime he had a spare moment he would draw. His parents noticed that he had a talent and when he was 15 they gave Harry a choice, to travel the 50 miles to Venice and attend art school, which was very expensive, or to go to America where his older brother was already established in Detroit.”
Bertoia chose America.
“He didn’t speak English, he had never enjoyed a hamburger or ridden on a bus,” Celia Bertoia said.
In 1936, Harry Bertoia attended art school at the Detroit Society of Arts and Crafts, which is best known for its creative studies.
The following year, Bertoia received a scholarship to study at the prestigious Cranbrook Academy of Art where he met several influential people that played a critical role in his becoming a world-renowned mid-century furniture designer.
Along with influence from architect and furniture designer Charles Eames, and that of Hans and Florence Knoll, Bertoia developed his love for working with metal. Bertoia worked for both Eames and the Knolls and in the 1950s, he designed a collection of five-wire furniture pieces that have become his most known work.
“You are looking at the 1950s when most all the furniture was made from wood,” Celia said. “To work with metal was a new way of manufacturing furniture. They began production of the collection in 1953 and it has never stopped, which is almost unheard of.”
Harry Bertoia was a man of many layers and an exhaustible drive to create. Celia Bertoia said she always just knew her father as “dad.” She was 23 when her father died in 1978. Now in her 60s, she is finding out more and more about him through archival correspondence.
“Honestly, I didn’t know that much about his career before researching my book (“The Life and Work of Harry Bertoia”). As a teenager, I’d go to his workshop and see the projects he was working on, and attend the occasional museum opening, but to me, he was just dad,” Celia Bertoia said.
The one thing she did know about him was that work was his top priority, and had some projects which he completely threw himself into.
“I knew that he loved me, but I can’t remember him ever saying those words,” Celia Bertoia said. “He was somewhat rigid and not affectionate in the normal sense. However, when I did spend time with him, which wasn’t all that common because he was such a workaholic, he was fully present. When he spoke to me it was as an equal, even when I was a teenager.”
Despite having a closed and guarded personality, Harry Bertoia took a keen interest in his daughter’s life.
“He wanted to know what my opinions were,” Celia said. “He was always there for me. He had probably had the greatest influence of anyone on my life.”
To celebrate the foundation and its collection of Bertoia art, an open house is scheduled for 5-7 p.m., Nov. 7. Along with a drawing for a Bertoia Table Tonal sculpture, valued at $3,000, a sonambient concert is planned and refreshments will be served.
The Harry Bertoia Foundation is located at 1449 N. 1400 West, Suite 11, St. George. For more information, call 435-673-2355.
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