RYE, N.Y. — As a man’s home is his castle, one extraordinarily talented man has filled his with fanciful creatures of his own invention. Hundreds of meticulously constructed sculptural paper works of astonishing texture and complexity grab the eye from every corner of his three-story farmhouse and barn, keeping company with the artist in retirement.
That artist, Irving Harper, is the man behind these stunning, museum-quality figures. Harper is also the man who is behind such midcentury icons as the Marshmallow sofa and the Ball clock that he designed while in the employ of George Nelson. Harper worked on designs for New York World’s Fair pavilions and exhibits both in 1939 and 1964, and a consumer product installation at the 1959 American National Exhibition in Moscow, to name just a few.
Over the course of his five-decade career, he created well-recognized corporate logos and collateral materials, furniture and ceramics, tableware and textiles, clocks and lighting; he designed commercial interiors, including the interiors for Hallmark cards and the colorful global ground facilities for Braniff Airlines at a time when most other airlines were far more conservative. For his design of a home, he was awarded first prize in a 1947 competition sponsored by Bloomingdale’s.
A newly published book on Harper, Irving Harper Works In Paper, edited by Michael Maharam (Skira Rizzoli, New York) elaborately surveys Harper’s exquisite creations and his captivating career.
Harper was interested in art as a child growing up in Manhattan. He studied at Brooklyn College by day and took classes at Cooper Union at night. The Depression was in full force; Harper says he went to school because jobs were scarce. The instructors were mostly architects unable to find work in the Depression, of whom he says, “They didn’t know what to do with us.” That architectural grounding has stood him in good stead.
He joined Modernist architect Morris B. Sanders Jr at his landmark 49th Street studio where he worked on the interiors of the Arkansas pavilion (Sanders was a native) for the 1939 New York World’s Fair. His next stop was with industrial designer Gilbert Rohde, where he designed exhibits for the Home Furnishings pavilion at the World’s Fair. From there he moved on to work with Raymond Loewy creating department store interiors, and in 1947 was recruited by George Nelson, where he worked with his good friend and colleague (and Nelson’s only other employee) Ernest Farmer. Herman Miller was among Nelson’s clients, as was his brother Howard Miller when they separated their companies.
Harper, Herman Miller’s first director of design, created the corporate logo that is still in use today, along with a plethora of other graphics, housewares, lighting and slide projectors, typewriters and record players. One weekend in the 1950s Harper played around with some flat round cushions made of a new plastic that would not require upholstery. He made a model using a checkers set and then the sofa itself, using 18 cushions. Thus was born the Marshmallow sofa. When the injected molded plastic cushions proved to be too labor intensive for profit, conventional upholstery was substituted.
As an employee of George Nelson Associates, Harper’s name (or that of most other designers) did not appear; each object was advertised as by “George Nelson for Herman Miller.” In trade publications, however, Harper and other designers received proper credit.
For Howard Miller, Harper designed an array of Modernist clocks, foremost of which was the Ball clock. There were other, numberless clocks, clocks with suns and stars, clocks with moons and clocks that looked like bubbles. All enjoyed great popularity.
For Harper, the demands of his design career were often stressful, requiring research and design, precise presentation models and modifications, and tight deadlines. In the early 1960s he cast about for a relaxing outlet, something he describes today as “stupid and repetitive.” He considered crocheting and knitting, but rejected them in favor something he knew well, a variation on his model making. At first he fixed on a matchstick bamboo blind. He took it apart and chopped the thin bamboo into tiny pieces, which he then began assembling into a sinuous mask, using Elmer’s glue to bind it all together.
Part time and a couple of weeks later, he had a finished piece. Pretty soon he had produced armies of animals and birds, African masks, household articles, the façade of a Florentine church, screens and lighting fixtures. Of a church prominently displayed in his living room, he says he couldn’t have the real thing so he made a model. He built a tiled counter around the perimeter of his large glass-walled living room where he displays part of his oeuvre. Other pieces hang from the ceiling or the walls, rest on tabletops, the fireplace mantel and some sit on the floor. He only ceased production of his creatures when he ran out of space, around 2000.
His last work was the largest and most involved of his creations, a paper owl standing more than 2 feet tall, gorgeously feathered and with fierce blue eyes. Its body comprises papier mâché and scraps of paper. It keeps company with other avian creatures: feathered eagles, wading birds and fanciful flying creatures. A found bird’s nest is now supported on a paper stand and occupied by a nesting paper bird.
Harper nonchalantly describes his constructions as painstaking but relaxing, and humbly stated they required little concentration. In fact, they are masterpieces.
Although he began with bamboo slices, most of Harper’s pieces are made of wadded up newspaper forms that are finished with an outer layer of manipulated slices of construction paper.
“It’s cheap, easy to work with and poses a challenge to my creative ability. It is a material with no characteristics, but can assume any form, forms that cannot be made by any other material.”
Harper enjoyed the rapidity with which he could achieve a form by cutting, scoring and bending paper. It is art that can be made at the kitchen table but Harper maintained a third floor studio where he created most of his sculpture.
Asked if he had any particular idea in mind when he began each piece, Harper smiles and replies, “No, I just did it.” Sometimes he had a vague idea at the beginning, but “the material determined the finished form.” He explains that the more he worked on a piece, the more ideas he had about it. The work would take on its own life.
Harper’s ideas come from observation, in media and in museums and galleries. He says he would sometimes see an interesting object in a museum or gallery and recreate it in paper.
Harper has no favorites among his own work. “I like each one best.”
Once he began, he decided to fill his house. And he did.
Harper claims no particular influences other than African masks and his favorite artist: Pablo Picasso. He admits to loving everything Picasso. Images of Picasso works hang on the walls of his studio and much of his art owes much to that artist. African masks and figures stand guard and Harper says they are at the root of much that he has made — except for those objects influenced by Picasso.
Aside from paper and bamboo, and, of course, Elmer’s glue, Harper relied mainly on found materials. Parts of his daughter’s discarded dolls enjoy entirely new lives in several sculptures. So much did he like the dolls’ blue eyes that he ordered a quantity from a Brooklyn supply house. They appear in many pieces. Another exception is a purchased balsa wood figure of an angel set within a construction of pinecones, toothpicks and nylon thread.
Although a number of his paper constructions are painted, Harper says he is not interested in color. “Introducing color to the piece of sculpture interferes with its form.” That said, articles made using telephone wire found at construction sites evince a compelling use of color.
Highly decorative screens and hanging paper curtains separate areas around his house and lend interest to odd corners. Harper also created a hall lamp from a nest of black plastic triple light sockets; he used bamboo to construct an attractive chandelier shade.
The imposing beech tree that occupies the vast majority of the front yard at the artist’s residence was responsible for seducing Harper into buying his house in 1954. It has been a recurring theme in his work for decades now. A painting of the tree rests beneath the window that overlooks it and a number of abstract paper trees in its likeness are in evidence.
He has refused offers for his creations from interested purchasers and has only allowed them out of his house for a handful of exhibits, one at a SoHo gallery, one in Rochester, N.Y., and another in nearby New Rochelle. Since the New Rochelle show where one figure broke, Harper has not allowed his work to be exhibited.
Today Harper spends a large part of his day in his living room surrounded by his work. He reads and listens to music. He got rid of television, saying it was “boring and took up too much of his time.” No Internet either.
As little as his work is known, it is much admired. The self-effacing Harper says he would be surprised to learn that his work had influenced other artists. He has some surprises coming.
Already a hit on blogs and specialty sites across the internet, Irving Harper Works In Paper is available from Skira Rizzoli for $45, hardcover. The book is illustrated copiously. Of it Harper says, “It’s a very nice gift.”