Recognized worldwide as a genius of 20th century design, it’s hard to believe that Harry Bertoia designed only one series of furniture. His steel wire chairs, designed in 1951, are a masterpiece of structure and transparency and remain a staple in every midcentury inspired home. While most of his contemporaries were interested in the properties of wood and plastic in their designs, Bertoia focused on steel, combining his metalworking knowledge with his interest in sculpture in producing a collection of woven-wire chairs, “If you look at these chairs, they are mainly made of air, like sculpture. Space passes right through them,” Bertoia said.
Bertoia, who was born in Italy and immigrated to the United States in 1930, met Florence Knoll at the famous Cranbrook Academy of Art. While he started working on chair designs in California, collaborating with Charles Eames, another Cranbrook alumnus, he moved to Pennsylvania to develop an original seating collection in 1951. Florence and Hans Knoll encouraged Bertoia to explore whatever he liked, and he was immediately drawn to the idea of utilizing steel wire in developing a new chair design. To further soften the hard shell of the woven-wire, furniture designer Richard Schultz was asked to help Bertoia in coming up with ideas for the upholstery. The collection was introduced by Knoll in 1952 and quickly became a classic. The success of the collection allowed Bertoia to move away from furniture design and devote himself entirely to his art.
Although the products of a single collection, Bertoia chairs remain one of the most popular chairs in home furnishing. It’s hard not to be drawn to the strictness of steel wiring made delicate by the transparency of the grid. The chameleon-like qualities of the chairs allow them to work well in any environment, from dining rooms to outdoor spaces, and they make a bold statement wherever they’re placed. So for those who are wondering how to include these chairs in their home or are just curious about the story of this modern classic, here’s a look at the history of the Bertoia seating collection and some of the Dwell homes that showcase the chairs to their best advantage.