Irving Harper: ‘Kept his light under a bucket’

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Irving Harper in his home in Rye, N.Y., in October 2014. Photo by Kim Phillips.

The world lost a quiet genius yesterday.

Irving Harper, designer of the Ball Clock, the Marshmallow Sofa and the Herman Miller logo, died at age 99 in Rye, New York, where he lived for more than 60 years.

Harper was at the center of a wave of modern design popularity in the middle of the 20th century, rising to the role of design director in the 1950s for George Nelson Associates, whose influence was far reaching. Many products Harper designed and oversaw reached iconic status; yet until recent years, his name was almost unknown.

“Irving was a genius who kept his light under a bucket,” said Lucia DeRespinis, an industrial designer who worked alongside Harper for eight years at the Nelson office. “He was just that kind of a guy.”

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Harper’s first representation of the swooping “M” that became the Herman Miller logo.

Harper began work as a graphic designer for Nelson in 1947, one of only three employees in the fledgling company. One of his first tasks was to design a print advertisement for the Herman Miller Furniture Company, for which his boss, George Nelson, was design director. With instinctive inspiration, which seemed a hallmark of much of his work, Harper devised a dramatic, stylized letter “M” for “Miller” — a design that remains the Herman Miller logo to this day.

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Harper’s Marshmallow Sofa (1956) and, below, Ball Clock (1949).
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Soon, Harper was designing products as well, and Nelson put him in charge of clock designs for the Howard Miller company, a separate company from Herman Miller but also based in Michigan. Harper’s first production design, which replaced numerals on the clock face with ball-tipped spokes, becoming an instant hit with its suggestion of atomic structure at a time when Americans were acutely focused on all things atomic. The clock remains one of the most widely recognized representations of 20th century modern design.

In time, Harper had his hand in everything, from dinnerware and fabric design to furniture and large-scale exhibitions produced by the Nelson office. He designed the Marshmallow Sofa in 1956, was a force in the American National Exhibition in Moscow in 1959 and was in charge of design in 1963 of the Chrysler pavilion for the 1964 New York World’s Fair.

Harper left the Nelson office in 1963 to found the design firm of Harper+George with Phil George. He retired to Rye in 1983. In recent years, his hobby of making sculptures out of folded paper has won recognition through a book, Irving Harper Works in Paper, and an exhibition at the Rye (N.Y.) Arts Center, Irving Harper: A Mid-Century Mind at Play.

Jeff Taylor, co-curator of the exhibition with Katharine Dufault and an associate professor at nearby Purchase College, has devoted a career to the study of modern art and recalled today his assessment of Harper’s sculptures.

“They struck me as the most pure expression of modern art I have ever encountered,” he said, explaining that it was Harper’s dispassionate attitude toward his work that annealed that purity, an attitude completely in keeping with the quiet and humble genius many people recall.

“He never planned to sell them, he never planned to exhibit them, and he didn’t seem particularly concerned whether they survived,” Taylor said.

The Art Center was able to persuade a reluctant Harper to allow a selection of his sculptures to be shown from among the hundreds he created over nearly 40 years, beginning in 1963 while he was working on the World’s Fair project.

The raves were universal, especially among the school children of Rye. Taylor said just about every kid in the village, from kindergarten through eighth grade, came to the art center to see Harper’s delightful sculptures.

“Kids were just ecstatic when they saw them,” Taylor said. “To the children of Rye, Irving is such a local hero.”

Harper was born July 14, 1916. He is survived by a daughter, Elizabeth. His wife, Belle, died in 2009. The couple were married for 69 years.

For further reading:

Paper Wizard: Mid-Century Modern’s Unsung Visionary Gets his Due, Collector’s Weekly

Irving Harper: Artwork, Design Sponge

Irving Harper: The Mediums Beyond the Message, Herman Miller’s Why Magazine

Irving Harper’s World, Why Magazine

Vintage Modern, Metropolis

Remembering Irving Harper, Why Magazine

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The Owl, a paper sculpture by Harper. Photo by James Dee.