Harry Bertoia’s Sonambients: Poetry in Metal

By Taryn Clary
“The urge for good design is the same as the urge to go on living.” – Harry Bertoia

A fter immigrating from Italy to Detroit in 1930, Harry Bertoia (1915-1978) trained at the Cranbrook Academy of Art where he was introduced to the pioneering architecture and design of Walter Gropius, Charles and Ray Eames, Eero Saarinen and more. Bertoia became particularly taken with metalwork, which would become his medium of choice for the remainder of his prolific career. In 1950, Bertoia moved to Pennsylvania to work for fellow Cranbrook graduate Florence Knoll, where he produced the iconic Bertoia Collection of wire furniture. The highlight of the collection was undoubtedly his latticed steel wire “Diamond” Chair, sales of which launched his commercial success and freed him to experiment with sound sculpture from the mid-1950s onward.
The “Sonambient” became Bertoia’s ultimate musical expression. Working out of his barn in Barto, Pennsylvania, Bertoia experimented with a variety of metals to create his sculptures, which display a range of hues from charcoal gray to warm gold. Like his wire furniture, the sculptures are an intricate balance of line and negative space. Designed as musical instruments that anyone can play, the statuesque sculptures come to life with the touch of a hand or a light breeze. Based on their size, the number of rods and style of rod, each sculpture produces its own distinct sound. Bertoia would host concerts in Barto where he strummed and chimed the pieces together in harmony and coined the term “Sonambient” to describe the encompassing sound environment.

Following the success of Bertoia: The Sonambient Barn Collection, Sotheby’s is pleased to offer three exquisite “Sonambient” sculptures by Harry Bertoia in Design, an online auction with bidding open from 8 March through 15 March, 2022 (lots 96-98). Each measuring roughly three feet high and executed in beryllium copper and brass, these works perfectly encapsulate Bertoia’s ambition to integrate form, sound, space and nature.

The three lots exhibit nuanced aesthetic and tonal qualities. Lot 96 features cylinder tops that produce a deep bell ring, while the elongated cattail tops of lot 97 emit a serene chime. Lot 98 is distinguished by its institutional provenance, having originally been in the collection of the Taft Museum of Art in Cincinnati, Ohio. In the summer of 1976, the Taft hosted an exhibition titled “Sounds of Sculpture,” which juxtaposed the present lot and other Bertoia pieces alongside the works of the Baschet Brothers. An article in the Louisville Courier Journal hailed the sensory experience as “both festive and impressive, just right for this nation’s 200th July.” All three lots, perfect for indoor and outdoor settings, present an opportunity for collectors to acquire a dynamic work from Bertoia’s celebrated “Sonambient” oeuvre.


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