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Metal Music: Designer Harry Bertoia’s Beautiful, Resonant Sound Sculptures

A new exhibit at New York's Museum of Arts and Design showcases the resonant musical creations of a midcentury creative heavyweight

Prolific American designer Harry Bertoia first discovered the sonorous effect, not surprisingly, in his workshop. An Italian-American craftsman who studied and taught at Cranbrook, Bertoia became a godfather of midcentury craft and industrial design, creating inspiring jewelry, installations, and furniture, such as the Diamond chair for Knoll, that would help define an era. It’s no surprise that one of his most esoteric, and personal, projects would arise from a stray observation while bending wire. The thin strand of metal, when it snapped and struck another wire, vibrated and made sound. What would happen, he thought, if he bunched wires together, and turned this stray sound into a symphony?

This observation led Bertoia to build what he would call his Sonambient sculptures, a series of metal pieces that create an almost hypnotizing, resonant sound when touched and activated. A new exhibit at the Museum of Arts and Design in New York, Atmosphere for Enjoyment, showcases a selection of these works, capturing Bertoia’s vision in miniature and displaying some of the pieces that formed what, at one time, was his orchestra. It's a look at a unique chapter in the life and career of a designer who took made multidisciplinary work his hallmark.

Bertoia's sculptures are simple machines for sound replication, thin grids of wire strands, resembling metallic cattails or an abstract industrial brush, that create a gentle sound when swaying in the breeze or "switched on" by a simple tap. Bertoia built scores of these devices over the last two decades of his life, eventually setting up a series of them in an old barn on his property in Pennsylvania in the late ‘60s and recording their sounds on reel-to-reel tape. The resulting metal music, a soft, ambient soundscape, washes over listeners.

Bertoia would host listening parties inside the barn, inviting small groups to hear the sound of the sculptures, recording and releasing small runs of albums for years, with titles such as Phosphorescence and Ocean Mysteries suggesting a seriously chill vibe. Bertoia loved the way the sculptures required no formal musical training or understanding; they simply played themselves, with no need for a score of direction. While few people heard or saw them in the presence of the designer, the private press aspect of his musical output managed to find an audience and influence other musicians, including the Kronos Quartet, who recorded in the barn, Brian Eno, and Olivia Block. Massachusetts-based label Important Records recently reissued the entire run of Bertoia’s recordings.

Bertoia worked on numerous iteration of these sculptures, creating gongs and fashioning 40-foot tall pieces (one was meant for installation at Dulles Airport in Washington, D.C.). He would pass away in 1978, before the final series of recordings would be released. It may seem like an odd coda to the career of a trailblazer for Knoll and other design icons, but the eccentric work spoke to Bertoia's belief in unfettered creative expression. Ever since he was a child in Italy, when he heard the rhythmic sounds of Gypsies playing pots and pans, he wanted to create a universal instrument. It just took decades of design to realize his vision.

"I won't be at bothered if they don't accept me as a musician," Bertoia said in an interview. "I’m not really a musician, and by that same definition, I’m not really a sculptor, not having attended classes in sculpting. Yet references have been made, and I don’t really care one way or another. As far as classification goes, I don’t think I’ve fit into one mode my entire life. If I become aware I’m pushed into one, I’ll burst out of it as soon as possible."

Open through September 25, Atmosphere for Enjoyment includes original sounding sculptures by Bertoia, an immersive four-channel sound installation created by John Brien from Bertoia’s original Sonambient recordings; interactive sounding sculptures made by Bertoia’s son, Val Bertoia; and an array of ephemera, recordings, and hands-on materials, including a timeline documenting the sounding sculptures’ production, exhibition, performance, and influence. It runs in parallel with Bent, Cast & Forged, an exhibition of Bertoia's jewelry.

The Iconic Wire Chair, Harry Bertoia, and the Making of America's Living Room [Curbed]

Cranbrook's Golden Age [Curbed]