Growing up Modern with Harry Bertoia


Newsletter, docomomo, Growing up modern, special edition
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The first time I realized how life at my house contrasted sharply with others was during an overnighter at my best friend Diane’s house. They lived on top of a gas station in a tidy 3 bedroom apartment. Her dad worked the station and her mom was the homemaker. Conversation rallied around logistics, chores, money, church. Our family never talked about any of that! Our dinner dialogues had more to do with philosophy, art and scientific discoveries. That the house was mildly dirty or the cooking minimal never bothered me because I didn’t know it was supposed to be otherwise. Harry might pose a question such as “Where do you go when you die?” and let us all answer over the course of the meal. My brother and sister and I might offer some childlike ideas, my mother Brigitta would talk about reincarnation and Buddhism, and Harry would describe going back to the source. We were an un-churched family.


One night after the plates were cleared, Harry explained his perception of how the individual fits into the greater dimensions. He placed a glass of water in front of us and asked Brigitta to find a fountain pen. As he carefully picked up the pen, he described how the soul, once departed from a human body, goes back into the “Great Oneness,” as he called it. As individuals on planet Earth, we go about our business and have consciousness to whatever degree our current state of enlightenment permits. But once we complete our mission on Earth (which could take many lifetimes) we ultimately reunite with the Universal Spirit.

While talking, Harry placed the pen atop the glass, opened up the tip with his finger and let out a drop of blue ink into the water. “At first, you see how distinctly there is the blue ink streak within the clear water.” Harry discoursed, as he gently swirled the water, “but soon it blends into a sort of a lighter blue and then the water becomes totally clear again. Eventually that individual drop of ink is totally absorbed back into the water, just as the soul goes back to its source.” As he spoke, we saw the transformation of blue squiggles to pure water, just like he said. He placed the glass down on the table with a satisfactory smile as the clear water settled back into stillness. Magic! It was such an impactful display that I never forgot it.

It was this grand overview of humanity that allowed Harry to see both the details and the bigger picture in any situation. He remained true to his principles, did not stray from what he saw as honest and right, and worked hard to create what his inner visions instructed. He explained to the family how a Marshall University interview had forced the issue. They were planning a memorial fountain for the tragically killed university members in the catastrophic airplane crash of 1970. The Board brought in several artists for possible ideas to honor the football team, Harry Bertoia being one of them. Harry sat around a long table with the officials of the university. During the discussion, one committee member suggested creating a big buffalo, since “the thundering herd” was their mascot. Harry, without pause, replied, “If you wish to have a buffalo, I would at this moment like to be left out of the consideration because that is not what I shall ever do!” He offered his sketches of a tall abstract sculpture. He had no concern of lost income, or trying to sway them to his side. His concepts were summarily rejected, but after further contemplation, Keith Dean, the architect, convinced them to go with Harry. While always willing to discuss various options with architects, he never bent beyond his beliefs

One of my favorite family events was going to the movies. On a Friday night about once a month, Harry posed the question that required no answer, “Who wants to go to the movies?” Lickety-split, we all clamored with yippees and grabbed our jackets. Piling into the black 1954 Ford convertible to drive to Allentown was one of the times that everyone was happy. There were three movie theatres, all on the same street, and it was our habit to drive by the marquees to see what was playing. I was not aware that you could call ahead to find out the movie titles or start times until adulthood. Isn’t it odd how each of us thinks our upbringing is “normal”? We would pick the movie simply by its name. If we happened to enter halfway through the movie, we just sat through the cartoons in order to see the second showing. Harry liked westerns, so that’s often what we watched. We all enjoyed the cartoons – Bugs Bunny or Pink Panther – and Harry laughed so hard that he cried! On the ride home, it was time to sing songs. Brigitta led the German folk songs, and Harry introduced the Italian tunes like Santa Lucia. Those are fond memories for me.


I didn’t really realize Harry was a well-known sculptor/designer until I was an adult, so his fame did not affect me growing up. I knew he was doing important work when we would visit the shop and see one of his monumental architectural commissions. The way he spoke about his sculptures with a sort of humble pride, how comfortable he seemed in the shop and how he joked with his assistants all indicated to me that he loved his work. Occasionally we kids were allowed to come along to an opening of a museum exhibition or the dedication of a building with his sculpture. I could tell by all the fancy clothing and women with make-up that it must be a big deal. I remember when he was completing the Philadelphia Civic Center; there was some talk of transporting it by helicopter, which we all thought was totally cool. As it turned out, the weight was too much, so they opted for a flatbed, but it was still a major event. We were allowed to climb up onto the fountain piece like a jungle gym until they moved it. My Mom Brigitta said that it was about time that his home state began to appreciate his work since he was known to the rest of the world by this time (the 1960s).

What was important for me as a child was that I knew, the way children know things, that my Daddy loved me. His strict Catholic Italian upbringing did not allow him to say the actual words, “I love you,” but the energy came through loud and clear for me. It was a brief hug at breakfast, a quiet walk through the woods, or an inquiry about the school play that let me know I was well cared for and had nothing to worry about. In Harry’s presence, I always felt safe and content. It was his living example, his smiling blue eyes and his amazing integrity that lingers in me to this day.

As a wild child, I was the least likely to follow in Harry’s footsteps. Both of my siblings had some artistic ability, but I was much more of an organizer, a list maker and a public relations kind of gal. It was only as I approached my late fifties, with Harry long gone, that it dawned on me that I needed to carry on his legacy somehow. My sister always told me that I was Harry’s favorite and perhaps it was true. I certainly felt a strong bond with him, and when the time of my life came to speak and write about him, that connection blossomed even more. When I was grappling with how to go about this daunting task of furthering his legacy, a message dropped in from Harry and the universe. A woman in my hometown of Bozeman, Montana, called out of the blue after seeing my name in the local paper. She asked, “Are you related to Harry Bertoia? I knew him at Cranbrook!” The chances of a Cranbrook alumnus who knew Harry living in my town? One in a million? When I visited the eighty-something woman, she explained that she took a jewelry class from Harry in 1940. He had given her the silver cast ring that resulted from his demonstration of the lost wax process. She had no offspring and wondered if the family would like the ring back now that she was elderly?


She handed the beautiful ring to me and I slipped it on my finger. It fit perfectly. That ring has been on my hand ever since that moment. I knew it was Harry saying, “Yes, my Celia, go forth and further my legacy!” I started the Harry Bertoia Foundation and never looked back.


About the Author


Celia Bertoia is the youngest daughter of Harry Bertoia, currently living in Montana. She is the founder and president of the Harry Bertoia Foundation and authored The Life and Work of Harry Bertoia, 2015. She is an accredited fine arts appraiser with ASA, and also researches Certificates of Authenticity for Bertoia art.