Harry Bertoia and Postwar American Design Culture


Luce/ACLS Dissertation Fellowships in American Art


Art and Art History


This dissertation investigates the confluence of art, design, science, and corporate interests in the career and oeuvre of Harry Bertoia (1915-1978). Although modernist artists had long labored to distinguish themselves from design and the associated threat of their art being dismissed as merely commercial, decorative, or craft, the decades following World War II saw the amplification of this modernist anxiety. A widespread culture of design emerged in the period, in which design assumed unprecedented prominence as a means of relating to the built environment and of interacting with abstract systems and institutions. Bertoia’s work across media, including graphics, jewelry, furniture, painting, sculpture, and sound performance, blurred strict modernist distinctions between fine and applied arts, testifying to design’s new cultural pervasiveness. His work exemplifies the porosity between art and industry, offering new ways of understanding the role of creativity in the highly rationalized cultural climate of the Cold War-era United States.