9 March 2016
Who knows if the elderly Albert Einstein ever sat on the Diamond Chair, designed by Harry Bertoia for Knoll in the early fifties and still in production today. Perhaps it would have reminded him of a deformation of the curvature of space-time like that of the gravitational waves he predicted in 1915 and which were only confirmed a century later. In fact this chair has some parallels with the images employed by physicists to explain the great scientist’s theories: the Diamond Chair consists of a curved mesh used to create an enveloping cavity, a warped surface that makes no distinction between seat and back, able to accommodate the movements of the body. A sort of metal version of the hammock, with its fibers stretched and deformed to form an overall equilibrium. Bertoia (1915-78), a versatile artist who was born in Italy and emigrated to Detroit as a teenager, created it shortly after leaving the Eames studio in California, where he had come into contact with the world of furniture design but showed a preference for metal over the plywood so dear to Charles Eames. The two men had met at the Cranbrook Academy of Art in Michigan, the fabled experimental school also attended by Ray Kaiser (the future Mrs. Eames), Florence Schust (Mrs. Knoll) and Eero Saarinen: there Bertoia had run the metal workshop until 1943, when the demands of the war effort had led to a scarcity of materials. He had then moved to the West Coast, where he studied welding, a technique he used to make sculptures. In the same years, he began to explore a particular geometrical shape that was to spread all over the world at the end of the war: the hyperbolic paraboloid, a ruled surface—i.e. one that has a straight line passing through every point—that made calculation easy and allowed great freedom of expression. So it was a combination of familiarity with the use of metal (“I was delighted to take a rod and bend it, it was part of my nature”), his experience with Eames and the financial security provided to him by the Knolls (who in 1950 invited him to come and work in Pennsylvania) that enabled Bertoia to give birth to his celebrated chair, which quickly became an icon of postwar design. It has obvious affinities with the contemporary Wire Chair of the Eameses, to such an extent that Bertoia was obliged to change one of its details because it had already been patented by his colleagues, after Herman Miller sued Knoll. This seems to echo the history of wire furniture in the twenties: who was the first to use the material? Marcel Breuer? Mart Stam? Ludwig Mies van der Rohe? “Take wire and add poetry,” declared an old advertisement for the Diamond Chair. The wire may have been the same, but the poetry—even when written with the same words—was always different.