For nearly four decades, Irving Harper, once the right-hand man to Herman Miller design director George Nelson, would come home from his desk job and devote his evenings to making fragile sculptures with construction paper, Elmer’s glue, and found materials.
“Paper is a versatile medium,” Harper, now 98 and retired, says in a Herman Miller-commissioned video about his career.
An understatement to say the least, as a new exhibition featuring 70 pieces from his body of more than 300 works makes clear. The exhibition, organized by the Rye Arts Center Gallery, located an hour north of New York City, marks the first time in decades that the gallery-shy Harper has agreed to show his work in public.
Under George Nelson’s direction–and for many years, under his shadow–Harper dreamed up now-iconic products like the Marshmallow Sofa (1956) and the Ball Clock (1949). He also designed Herman Miller’s minimalist tomato-red and white logo and magazine advertisements, all with his distinctive collage-inspired aesthetic. Among his peers, Harper was also renowned for his deft hand with paper prototypes, a skill he developed early in his career while training as an architect at Brooklyn College and Cooper Union.
In the end, he left his architecture studies behind. “[I] found design much more interesting because it was entrepreneurial,” Harper told interviewer Julie Lasky. “Design work is more varied. Everything is a first-time thing. You learn a lot more.”
But in the design world, as in architecture, “creativity has to come out in very precise and disciplined accordance to the client and the employer,” says Jeff Taylor, PhD, co-curator of the new exhibition and president of the Arts Center’s board. “[Harper] had an excess of creative ideas that had no place in the Herman Miller world, and he could come home and let those things run free.”
The paper sculptures are as varied in style as Harper’s sources of inspiration–Cubism, surrealism, Pop Art, African art. “He can translate them all into three dimensions, with exquisite craftsmanship,” says Taylor.
That intermingling of fine art and craft, says co-curator Katharine Dufault, reflects Harper’s allegiance to the Bauhaus Movement–even going so far as to refer to himself as a “Bauhaus man” in meeting with the exhibition curators. Harper makes “the intricate seem effortless,” Dufault says.
Over the years Harper occasionally presented his paper sculptures to friends as gifts, but he declined any offer to sell the works. Until now, most had never left his third-floor studio.
“I never sold any of my pieces, I had all the money I wanted,” Harper told Lasky. “I just wanted to have them around.”
“Irving Harper: A Mid-Century Mind At Play” will be showing at the Rye Arts Center through November 8.