By Mary Jo McConahay
Nick Bertoni, a pioneer of the Maker Movement that celebrated do-it-yourself design and technology as a lifestyle and method of education, died of pneumonia in Berkeley on June 21. He was 76.
Bertoni first promoted the idea of tinkering as a learning method at the San Francisco Exploratorium, where he managed the Artist in Residence Program and was inspired by Manhattan Project physicist Frank Oppenheimer, who founded the Exploratorium in 1969.
In 1997 Bertoni founded the Tinkers Workshop in Berkeley, which the Utne Reader described in 1999 as “a cavernous cross between Dad’s garage and a mad scientist’s lab, with some Wizard of Oz whimsy thrown in.”
Electronics, woodworking, metal crafts and inventing of all kinds flourished within the walls of the Tinkers Workshop, which was open to anyone. In recent years Bertoni recycled tons of bicycles per week while teaching hundreds of Berkeley youth to build and repair bikes. Each youngster walked away with a bike of his or her own.
Named after scruffy itinerants who once plied European roads in their wagons, offering mending services from town to town, Bertoni described his modern Tinkers as a “’think-do tank’ – a cross-pollination of scientists, doctors, engineers, lawyers, ecologists, artists inventors, politicians, teachers and students” who intended to “tinker our way to the next level of understanding.”
Nicholas Charles Bertoni was born on Jan. 15, 1941 in Ann Arbor, Michigan, the eldest of five children of Eugene Bertoni, and Rosemary (Kromer) Bertoni. He found a love of boating on the Huron River near his home, and upon high school graduation in 1960, joined the submarine force of the United States Navy, where he learned the skills of an electronics technician. He served until the beginning of the Vietnam War, when he became a lifelong peace and human rights activist.
He returned to attend the University of Michigan’s School of Architecture and Design, where he became the technical director of the fabled “Once Group” of avant-garde musicians and artists.
In 1969 Bertoni moved to California to work as a sound recordist for the filmmaker Robert Altman. He settled in Berkeley with a collective of writers, video pioneers and experimental musicians, including the food writer Ruth Reichl and the artist Doug Hollis. At Mills College in Oakland, where he designed the studios of the Center for Contemporary Music, and collaborated with composer greats Robert Ashley, John Cage, Maggi Payne and Pauline Oliveras.
Bertoni is survived by his wife of 30 years, documentary filmmaker Judith Ehrlich, and their son Aleksis Bertoni, Nick’s daughter Samantha Earl of Philadelphia, PA, brother Matthew Bertoni of Ann Arbor, and two sisters, Christina Bertoni, of Lincoln, Rhode Island, and Camilla Luengas of Omak, Washington. He is predeceased by a brother, Mark Bertoni.
A memorial service will be held later in the summer.
“Your hands know more than you do,” Nick Bertoni told the Chronicle in 1997, urging people to make, fix or invent something they didn’t know they could.
“If you keep yourself open along the way, you can make some interesting discoveries.”