Harry Bertoia Archival Files

Tidbits & Treasures

Receipts from Northern Brass, catalogs from Staempfli Gallery, handwritten memos on little bits of paper... these are the treasures in the Harry Bertoia Foundation archives.

Hour by hour, month by month, year after year, Eleanor and I have been indexing the archival files from the productive Pennsylvania years of Harry's career.

It is tedious, detailed, time-consuming work pouring over each page and recording what it is, from whom, with dimensions of any sculptures mentioned, to which company, in what location, about which topic. Some of it seems unimportant in the moment. But it is all extremely valuable in the end.

"People sometimes ask me how I do it, how I get my ideas, and I tell them by working like hell. I'm in this studio every day from 9 to 5. I know that runs against people’s notions of creativity…"  
— Harry Bertoia

Here is a great example. We are working hard to produce the second limited edition Table Tonal, a lovely single row of cattail rods. We began planning early last summer. Our welder made a prototype this fall and it's fabulous in most regards. Sounds almost just like the original, looks like the original, feels like the original BUT it is brass and not beryllium copper like the original. We were having trouble finding a source for beryllium copper rods in the correct diameter.

Well, back in the day, Harry was championed by both aluminum and copper companies (Reynolds, Anaconda, Kawecki BerylCo) as evinced by letters and advertisements in the archives. Harry was one of the few metal sculptors who used both materials in his work, and his pioneering techniques and alloy compositions have had far-reaching effects on modern industry today. 

This led us to contact copper.org where a helpful associate walked me through the process of finding resources and ultimately locating the elusive beryllium copper rods in California. Not knowing which exact alloy or hardness we needed, I recalled a chemical breakdown of the beryllium copper used in the Standard Oil tonals that I had skimmed over in the archives. At the time it seemed like superfluous information, but now it was crucial! I was able to forward the exact chemical composition of the rods, the contact data for the current copper company and all necessary details to our master welder. 

Viola! Table Tonal II, coming up!

In our authentication of Bertoia art, the archives are essential. When provenance is straightforward and traceable directly back to the artist, well, that is dandy—but rare. Often there is only some vague family lore, such as an uncle who went to Cranbrook or a Mom who bought it at an estate sale somewhere. 

For example, two years ago, a woman contacted the foundation with a double spray and was sure it was a Bertoia. 

Yes, it did look like it, but the sprays are one of the most copied Bertoias and we simply could not authenticate it. To find her sculpture, if indeed it was truly a Bertoia, would have taken endless research hours and she couldn't afford it. The best we could tell her was that we would keep an eye out for her branched spray as we indexed more files and let her know if we discovered something. A sticky note sketch of her sculpture was pinned on my bulletin board as a reminder. Well over a year and hundreds of files later I ran across a hand sketch by Harry of several sculptures sent to a gallery. Lo and behold, there was her split spray with matching dimensions and material. 

It made her day and mine.

The moral of the story is that the painstakingly detailed work of indexing may seem tiring and trivial in the doing of it, but it pays off in the long run! 

If there is anyone out there who wants to volunteer with indexing, we would love your help! 

Click below to volunteer: