Painted paperboard bust; painted ceramic clock housing prototypes Photo: Leslie Williamson

Irving Harper: Works in Paper

To say Irving Harper once worked in the office of George Nelson is kind of like saying Hillary Clinton once worked in the office of Barack Obama — Harper’s contributions were almost too many to count. He worked under Nelson for 17 years and was responsible for some of the studio’s — and design history’s — most famous works, including the Marshmallow sofa and Herman Miller’s still-current logo. Rizzoli recently published a book on Harper, but it wasn’t to set the record straight about who did what (there’s long been controversy over Nelson receiving credit for things that were actually authored by Harper.)

No, the book, Irving Harper: Works in Paper, reveals Harper’s even more secret life: the intricate paper sculptures he began constructing in his Westchester County home way back in 1963 and which he continued to make until about 10 years ago, when, he says, he ran out of room to display them. They were made, the book says, “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.” They caught the attention of Michael Maharam, collector extraordinaire and CEO of the textiles company, back in 2001 when Maharam re-released a design Harper had created for Nelson some 60 years ago. It was at Maharam’s request that the sculptures be restored and documented.

We knew of this project many moons ago (our former boss, Julie Lasky, wrote the intro, and our friend, the wonderful photographer Leslie Williamson, took many of the photos of Harper in his home) but we never knew the breadth of the work until a copy of the book landed in our laps. Here was Harper, a lovely nonagenarian man who embodied not one but three Sight Unseen obsessions — the talented but overlooked second in command, the professional designer with a compulsive art practice on the side, and the Surrealist dabbler. We just had to share some of our favorites.

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