It had been estimated to bring $7,000–$9,000, but Untitled (Owl) went for $48,750 at auction today in Chicago, including buyer’s fees – not a surprise, in a way, as it had served as an iconic representation of the paper sculptures of Irving Harper on the cover of a book and on a poster advertising a museum show of his work last year, the only one ever mounted. And besides, it is a piece of art that stops you in your tracks, maybe even resembling slightly its creator himself. It was clearly a gem of the auction, among many gems.
The owl, along with 306 other sculptures Harper created in his spare time over the course of 40 years, was included in the sale run by Wright auction house in its Chicago office. The lot represented the entire body of Harper’s work, except for fewer than 10 pieces that were given as gifts or otherwise separated from the larger group.
Wright had estimated the value of sculptures to typically range from $3,000 to $5,000, suggesting the sale would gross of $900,000 to $1.5 million before buyer’s fees of 25 percent. After a marathon session that began at noon today and ended at 9 p.m., requiring a change of auctioneers midway, the sculptures were sold at prices ranging from a low of $313 for an abstract wall composition to the nearly $50,000 for the owl. The next nearest grossing sculptures to the owl were three abstract wall pieces that went for $22,500, $17,500 and and $17,188. In all, the sale grossed just under $1.2 million, on the low end of Wright’s estimate.
The auction leaves a bittersweet legacy. Harper never wanted to part with the paper sculptures he created over the years – his friends, he called them – but now they will be dispersed far and wide.
Harper, a genius of modern design and a cornerstone of the design firm of George Nelson Associates in the 1950s, died August 4 at age 99 at his home in Rye, New York, where he lived for more than 60 years and where he began creating paper sculptures around 1964.
The sculptures themselves are remarkable from almost any perspective – their subject matter, and the how, when and why they were made. But perhaps more interesting is the man who made them.
Harper went to work as a graphic designer for George Nelson in 1947, near the time Nelson began as design director for the Herman Miller furniture company. Harper created the stylized “M” logo for Herman Miller that is still in use by the company today. He also went on to create some icons of modern furniture, including the Marshmallow Sofa, and had his hand in some of the biggest projects of the Nelson office, including work on the Chrysler Pavilion at the New York World’s Fair in 1964 and ’65.
It was during that latter time that Harper, under tremendous pressure by day, began idly assembling paper sculptures to relax in the evenings, drawing on his model-making skills (creasing, folding and gluing paper) learned while training as a young man to become an architect.
He got hooked on the pastime and continued for nearly 40 years, quitting rather suddenly. By the time he finished, he had made the 300-plus pieces spanning an astonishing range of topics, from abstract figures and collages to representational and realistic people, animals and inexplicable creatures.
The auction lot on the Wright website offers a breathtaking panorama of his work. And the auction catalog presents a fascinating and enlightening look at Harper’s life and the workings of the George Nelson office.
The paper sculptures, on the other hand, present a glimpse of the other Irving Harper, the private and quiet man who sought rest in crafting his friends. After decades together under one roof in Rye, those friends will likely never be gathered again in one place.
More about Harper’s sculptures
A single museum show of his work: Harper had no interest in showing his paper sculptures or selling them. But he finally relented and agreed to a modest show, Irving Harper: A Mid-Century Mind at Play, at the Rye (N.Y.) Arts Center from September 2014 through January 2015. Here’s a link to supporting web pages for the show, which feature video and many photos of Harper in his home with his sculptures.
The book that first told the story: The world at large first had a chance to learn of Harper’s extraordinary sculptures from Michael Maharam, the CEO of Maharam fabrics. of Harper’s sculptures was published With Julie Lasky, he wrote Irving Harper: Works in Paper, which was published in 2013 by Skira Rizzoli. The book is available from Maharam and elsewhere and is the next best thing to the sculptures and the man himself, both treasures.