Cut and Paste: Paper Became a Passion for Designer Irving Harper
Julie Lasky -- Interior Design, 3/1/2013 2:00:00 AM
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In 1963, Irving Harper, director of design at George Nelson Associates and author of several of the 20th century’s most evocative household artifacts, including the atomlike Ball clock (1948) and festive Marshmallow sofa (1956), was a nervous wreck. He had been put in charge of the team designing the Chrysler Pavilion for the 1964 New York World’s Fair, and he was coping with an ambitious program, a tight schedule, and high expectations.
Harper was looking for an activity to take his mind off the stress—something repetitive and soothing he could do at home in the evening. He considered taking up knitting or crocheting, but he also excelled at building cardboard models for client presentations. One day, he split apart a bamboo window blind and used Duco Cement to reconstitute the matchstick-size pieces into a flowing mask, which he set on a carved wood pedestal.
For the next four decades, Harper made sculptures. He built them mostly out of paperboard but also balsa wood, beads, straws, toothpicks, pinecones, telephone wire, twigs, dolls’ limbs and glass eyeballs, Mylar sheets, Styrofoam lumps, and pieces of the ceramic clocks he designed for the Michigan-based company Howard Miller. He scouted Manhattan art galleries and the Metropolitan Museum of Art for inspiration and fashioned Egyptian cats and stylized antelope heads, Byzantine towers, African masks, a Renaissance Florentine church in relief. He built constructions stacked like molecules and abstractions that peeled off the picture plane like a grid of flames. He worked in the styles of surrealism and de Stijl and made study after study of Pablo Picasso, the artist he admired above all others. On his shelves, Guernica’s suffering humans and horses mingled with crows, antelopes, and throned Egyptian animal gods.
Nineteen sixty-three, his year of agita, was also the year in which Harper left the Nelson office, where he had been working since 1947, and went out on his own. He disliked the hustle of running his own business and soon formed a partnership with a fellow Nelson alumnus, Philip George, designing primarily interiors for such clients as Braniff International Airways and Hallmark Cards. When Harper retired, in 1983, his sculpture output stepped up. By the time he had built his last work, around 2000—a glass-eyed owl sheathed in brown paperboard feathers— the collection approached some 300 pieces. Harper stopped making art, he insists, because he ran out of room to display it in the old farmhouse in Rye, New York, where he had been living for half a century.
Harper still lives in that house, surrounded by those pieces, in a gesamtkunstwerk of which he, at 96, is not only the creator but also a central, vital component. Individually, the sculptures can be appreciated for their charming translations of art historical masterpieces, their structural ingenuity, or their deft expressions of color. They are arresting down to the hinge, piercing, or loop. Collectively, they form a sumptuous catalog of one man’s perambulations along the boulevards of 20th-century aesthetics. Arranged in simple, bright rooms among primitive artworks and contemporary furniture—much of which are Harper’s own prototypes—they testify to the playfulness and omnivorous cultural appetites of the era’s great modernist designers. No less than the Charles and Ray Eames house in Pacific Palisades, California, the Harper interior is eclectic. Permeated with a calm sense of artistic adventure, it reflects lives joyfully lived.
“I never sold any of my pieces,” Harper says today. “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.”
His wife, Belle, died on December 22, 2009, after 69 years of marriage. Today, Harper lives alone in his art-filled house. The third-floor studio looks untouched from the days when he meticulously assembled his sculptures, not because he was a patient man, acquaintances say, but because he was mesmerized by a ritualistic craft that also required imaginative problem-solving. A reproduction of Guernica is tacked to a slanting wall, near a composition by Harper that has similar elements—contorted positions, cubist perspective, a dynamic mass of figures and abstractions. A photo of a young Elizabeth, his daughter, playing the violin is posted above a picture of Irving in his late 30s or early 40s. He has thick, dark eyebrows and a crewneck shirt and looks somewhat strained and bemused in the manner of George H.W. Bush.
“It’s amazing that I don’t have the slightest desire to do them anymore,” he says in his light-flooded living room, where he spends most of his time reading, listening to music, and appreciating his handwork. He recently recalled for Herman Miller editorial director Sam Grawe the days before he had turned the room into a modernist tableau. “I remember I had a circular saw in the living room, and I was building this counter around the room, and I was living here for the time being. I didn’t have any things on my own to decorate it with and hadn’t bought any accessories. So George [Nelson] came by and he looked at all these blank spaces and this blank counter and said, ‘There’s nothing here.’ I don’t know if he meant that as a form of flattery. I rather doubt it. Too bad he can’t come by and take a look at it now.”
Text by Julie Lasky and Michael Maharam has been excerpted and adapted from Irving Harper Works In Paper, courtesy of Rizzoli International Publications, 2013.