You’ve probably seen Irving Harper’s work even if you don’t know his name. His “Ball Clock” made for the Howard Miller Clock Company is an icon of mid-century Atomic Age design; his Marshmallow Sofa, created in the 1950s/60s for Herman Miller, is a continuously popular and curious piece of furniture with its connected circular cushions. He is one of many designers whose name was buried by their branded studio, in his case George Nelson Associates where he worked from 1947 to 1963.
Yet his work in another medium, paper, has been even more overlooked, largely because it’s rarely been exhibited outside his home in Rye, New York. A book published this month by Skira Rizzoli, Irving Harper: Works in Paper, aims to explore this more offbeat aspect of an artist whose whimsy always met an appreciation for form.
At George Nelson Associates he made his most influential designs, like the atomic clocks and Marshmallow couch, and he also led the design for the Chrysler Pavilion at the 1964 World’s Fair. It was a massive complex with a giant model of an engine people could explore with pounding pistons sending sparks from monster heads, an auto part garden, and even a whimsical rocket as a tribute to the car company’s role in the space program. According to an essay by Julie Lasky in Irving Harper: Works in Paper, this incredibly intense project “almost drove him to knit,” and as an outlet he started to make scuptures. He’d always been adept at modeling for his design work, but these sculptures were purely art. The first was a mask of curves made from a shredded bamboo window blind. His collection would tally around 300 when he completed his last sculpture in 2000: a magnificent owl with downcast doll eyes and brown feathers folded from paperboard.
As Michael Maharam, editor of the book and CEO of textile company Maharam, explains, he was working on a re-edition of some designs Harper had made for George Nelson 50 years ago, and in 2001 tracked down Harper who was only too happy to collaborate. While visiting the designer’s home, Maharam was drawn to the crowd of paperboard creations all over the rooms. Although they had grown dusty from neglect, he was compelled to restore the delicate creations and share them with a wider audience.
Harper has apparently felt long in the shadow of George Nelson, whose name sometimes gets credit for the atomic clocks and Marshmallow Sofa. So Maharam bought the 84-year-old his first computer, an iMac: “Together we made his first trip to Google, where I typed in his name and watched his awe at the record of his accomplishments — an incredibly touching moment.”
The Metropolitan Museum and galleries around New York were among Harper’s broad inspirations for his paper art, as shown in the numerous African masks, knights, Egyptian cats, and even a relief of a Renaissance Florentine church. He also made three-dimensional versions of the wailing animals in Picasso’s “Guernica,” and a snarling cat lunging at a flailing bird. While the versatile paperboard is the predominant material, he was highly adventurous, just as he had been with his professional designs, and incorporated toothpicks, balsa wood, telephone wire, ping pong balls, and the limbs and eyes of dolls.
Outside of his home, the sculptures were only shown in a Soho group exhibition, a solo show in Rochester, and one show in his own barn. He explains in the book: “I never sold any of my pieces. I had all the money I wanted. Then I would have lost my sculptures and just had more money. I just wanted to have them around.” On rare occasions, a few treasured friends received them as gifts. As for why he stopped making them, he stated that it was just that his old farmhouse couldn’t hold anymore.
Harper is now 96-years-old, living alone in the home he shared with Belle, his wife of 69 years who passed away in 2009. While his individual name as a designer may be overshadowed, the paper sculptures are something entirely and indisputably his own, and Irving Harper: Works in Paper is a highly enjoyable glimpse into this playful and skilled body of work. As Maharam writes in his introduction, it’s a “lesser-known side of the little-known Irving Harper.”
Irving Harper: Works in Paper, edited by Michael Maharam with a contribution by Julie Lasky, is available from Skira Rizzoli.