To the Antiques Roadshow treasure twins, Leigh and Leslie Keno, old age is nothing to brag about. What moves them to go back in time is good design. And increasingly, the Americana experts are reaching back a mere 50 years to collect such mid-century classics as the set of four white wire side chairs made by sculptor Harry Bertoia that they recently bagged for two Benjamins.
"Bertoia was clearly thinking outside the box when he developed these incredibly airy, nearly transparent chairs that almost appear to float," enthuses Leslie Keno. Not that he or any other antiques addict would turn down a chance encounter with a Goddard kneehole desk, but the likelihood of bumping into a mahogany masterpiece at your local garage sale is next to nil. Not so for Bertoia (1915–1978), whose modern mesh regularly appears at flea markets.
"There’s so much Bertoia furniture out there," observes Leigh, pointing out that the wire-grid side chairs they scored at a shop in Stamford, Connecticut, have been in continuous production since 1952, when Knoll first rolled out the wire wonders. While not calendar-crunching collectors, the Kenos strongly prefer the early Bertoia chairs, based on construction methods, materials, curvier shape, and patina.
Shown here are a vintage Bertoia chair with an original orange foam-rubber seat cushion and a newly made Bertoia with a white seat cushion. Note that the vintage chair has a black base.
Vintage Bertoia, one of a set of four chairs that Leigh and Leslie Keno recently found for $200.
A new Bertoia chair. The following five slides point out details that can help you to differentiate vintage Bertoia from new.
Vintage: The formerly snow-white wire mesh has turned vanilla with age. Compare, also, the cross points on this slide with the next one.
New: The wire mesh is bright white. The cross points are crisp and clean in contrast to the clumping found at the cross points in the previous slide.
Vintage: Bolts join the rod frame to the seat bottom.
New: The frame is welded to the chair seat.
Vintage: Tags on original foam-rubber cushions are inscribed "H.G. Knoll Products, East Greenville."
Bertoia’s "Experimental Sonambient," courtesy of photographer Matthew Regula of Lost City Arts in New York City; 212/375-0500; www.lostcityarts.com.
And the Kenos’ infatuation with the Italian-born Bertoia doesn’t end with furniture. In fact, both brothers first encountered the artist back in 1992 in the entryway at Mount Cuba, an 18th-century brick manor house owned by the grande dame of Delaware society, the late Pamela du Pont Copeland. "Mrs. Copeland ran her fingers through a Bertoia sound sculpture, and this incredible chime resonated through a cavernous hallway lined with Chippendale furniture," recalls Leslie, who later managed the Sotheby’s auction of Mrs. Copeland’s furnishings (minus the Bertoia, which the family still owns).
Bertoia moved to America in 1930 and attended high school in Detroit. He won a scholarship to study at the esteemed Cranbook Academy of Art, where he later taught metalwork and printmaking. Of his musical sculptures, such as the one pictured here, Leigh enthuses: "You can’t look without touching."
"Harry Bertoia is really an artist who also designed six or seven chairs," Leigh says. "The furniture is a very small, but affordable, part of his entire output."
Photography: Bryan McCay
Produced by Leigh Keno and Leslie Keno