Irving Harper—ring any bells? The man not only lived through the golden age of midcentury modern design, he contributed some of the movement’s most iconic silhouettes, from Herman Miller’s enduring, elegant logo to the Marshmallow Sofa (yep, that one, most often credited to George Nelson). Harper was one of the most significant creative forces of the era, but his incredible portfolio has largely gone unsung, mired in murky—but, back then, quite common—debates over authorship and attribution.
In this way, there’s a certain poetic justice to Irving Harper: Works in Paper, a book bound not as a career retrospective but instead through the passion projects he pursued to keep himself artistically fulfilled in spite—or because—of the rest. These pieces, restored and photographed, stand alone, and together provide a stunning tribute to an existence dedicated to making.
Julie Lasky, deputy editor of the New York Times Home section, offers a wealth of insights into the life and times in the lovely opening essay (with some nice assists by Herman Miller editorial director Sam Grawe, who got to spend some quality time with Harper at his home).
A dearth of architecture jobs out of school saw Harper pursue drafting and design instead; eventually he teamed up with Gilbert Rohde, then got involved with the Nelson office, which led to some of his most fruitful, if frustrating, professional years.
Harper began experimenting with sculptures during the particularly stressful period he spent designing the Chrysler pavilion for the 1964 World’s Fair, and the hobby stuck. He subsequently incorporated all kinds of materials into this work in addition to the eponymous paper, many of which would have likely been relegated to the rubbish bin; in his careful hands, styrofoam, twigs, and odd bits of ceramic could come together to create something not only truly unique but absolutely worth preserving. A multiculti mash-up of ethnographic influences the flora, fauna, faces, and graphic motifs throughout, each of which is weird and wonderful in its own way.
In the book’s introduction, editor Michael Maharam (and CEO of the family’s famous textile company) recounts the first time he introduced Harper to a MacBook—which was, of course, closely followed by a quick self-Google. "I typed in his name and watched his awe at the record of his accomplishments," Maharam writes. For a legend whose legacy has been, for too long, largely overshadowed by figureheads and under the radar, this thoughtful hardback is a step in the right direction to securing Harper’s well-earned place in the Modern pantheon.