Bertoia in Boston

Knoll, Important Records, the MIT Chapel and more...

Mary Petrilli, one of our board members at the Harry Bertoia Foundation, accompanied me to Boston on a lecture tour in early June.

Boston is a fabulous city which impressed us with its cleanliness and, of course, its historical intrigue. Everywhere we walked was another fascinating piece of history - home of some famous founding father, a grave marker for Paul Revere, a statue of Benjamin Franklin. The Boston Tea Party happened right there in the harbor.

The story of the revolution of America is truly inspiring, divinely guided, and well documented. If you have forgotten the history of the astonishing beginnings of our country, I highly recommend revisiting it!

But in terms of Bertoia history, Boston is also significant. One of the most stunning, and earliest, public commissions is in Cambridge on the Massachusetts Institute of Technology campus.

The MIT chapel, designed by architect Eero Saarinen (Harry's buddy from Cranbrook), is an unusual round brick building which is completely round on the exterior but has undulating curvy walls on the interior.

The reredos, or altarpiece, is a simple but elegant sculpture without a base, one of the first of its kind in 1955. Normally, we think of a sculpture as an object that is either set upon a table or floor, or has a built-in base. This wire structure is simply taut wire attached to both floor and ceiling with small shapes of metal attached to the wires. There are 20 wires which stretch 12 feet across the front of the space underneath the only source of light, a skylight directly above the wires.

Numerous geometric shapes including triangles and squares, but mostly rectangles, catch the light and reflect it into the chapel. Walking behind the sculpture, there is no light, no reflection and it is dark and almost gloomy. Seeing it from the front it is lit up like a Christmas tree. The metal shapes are angled perfectly to catch the sunlight.

My first visit to the MIT Chapel was breathtaking...
Photo courtesy of

I had seen dozens, if not hundreds, of photos of the MIT chapel. I expected it to be gorgeous.

What I did not expect was how large and completely breathtaking it is. The approach is through a tunnel-like foyer, and as I walked toward the chapel, suddenly the sculpture became visible and I literally gasped in awe. Words simply cannot relay the startling beauty of this piece.

Anyone going into the chapel immediately begins to whisper and walk gingerly because there is such a feeling of reverence and divinity. Whether or not you believe in God is irrelevant – there is an atmosphere of humility, sacredness, awe.

Eero Saarinen had his own memorial service held at this chapel, which speaks highly of the architect’s own opinion of it. I cannot emphasize emphatically enough that if you are traveling through Boston and love Bertoia (or even if you’ve never heard of Bertoia!) you must view the MIT chapel.

Knoll Boston

The events hosted by Knoll Boston were splendid, in keeping with Knoll's reliably top-notch sponsorship. The bright Knoll red wall adorned with Harry’s famous quote and the back-splash for all of his chair creations was a gorgeous way to honor his legacy.

All of the Knoll folks were excited and generous to a fault. We had a splendid dinner in an Italian restaurant which had originally been a bank. 

Our private room was once the bank vault – no wonder there was no cell phone reception!

Having an original Bertoia Sonambient tonal and a small gong was a special treat for those who came to the Knoll lecture because they were allowed to sound them, albeit gently.

Design Within Reach Cambridge

Design Within Reach's Bertoia event was also lovely, with a great turnout. The red carpet is laid out wherever the Harry Bertoia Foundation arrives. The staff at DWR in Cambridge said that it was one of the most special educational evenings they had ever presented. I was touched to get this lovely feedback from one person:

"You're a wonderfully engaging speaker and it's just so very special to be able to listen to you talk about your father, his work and your insightful observations and stories."

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Important Records

Photo courtesy of Important Records

The other business to which we attended was checking in with John Brien of Important Records who handles all the Sonambient recordings. They are located just outside of Boston. We had a chance to see his studio, and his future studio, recently financed by a Kickstarter campaign.

The new Important Records office will be housed in an old barn (but rather large) and will eventually be a marvelous work place. John Brien is a true perfectionist, maintaining an exacting standard for the recordings as well as the impeccable packaging. His next masterpiece will be part of the Eger film set, coming soon. Here's a sneak peek:

John Brien has digitized most of the original Sonambient reel-to-reel tapes done by Harry and his brother Oreste. While John Brien is not officially a member of the Foundation, he is most certainly an honored and respected associate who goes above and beyond. His work is a labor of love, as is most of our foundation work!

All in all, a productive and enjoyable trip!

Stay tuned for the next episode in Celia's adventures...