Created by Harper for Harper.

The Owl by Irving Harper. Photo by James Dee

The brilliant Irving Harper didn’t choose to unwind with a Manhattan after a stressful day in Manhattan. Rather, he overindulged in paper and glue. A designer at George Nelson Associates for 16 years, he was crucial to Nelson’s success during his tenure, creating the Marshmallow Sofa, Ball Clock, Herman Miller logo and countless other iconic works under the umbrella of George Nelson Associates.

Anonymity was once the norm in this industry, especially for designers working for a major studio like George Nelson. Harper didn’t expect public recognition for his work, and that humility gave him the ability to spend his personal time creating for his own enjoyment, completely without a filter or specific audience in mind. For 40 years he crafted magnificent paper animals, figures and objects simply for the joy of relaxation, meditation and play, having no intention to share them with the world.

Photo by Gwendolyn Horton

Fortunately for us, these sculptures were rescued from oblivion by Michael Maharam, who discovered them at Harper’s house when the two met to discuss the re-edition of several textile designs. That collaboration led to the book Irving Harper: Works in Paper (Skira Rizzoli) and then to the exhibition Irving Harper: A Mid-Century Mind at Play curated by Katharine Dufault and Jeff Taylor at The Rye Arts Center Gallery in Rye, New York.

The show consists of 77 pieces, each one painstakingly transported by car from Harper’s home. “We used one car, one driver and one holder, 77 times,” says Taylor. This is just a small sampling of the hundreds of pieces created, all from the third floor of the house with the exception of one. Harper didn’t allow the curators to touch the first or second floors. To see those gems, you’ll have to buy the book.

His ability to score paper – especially on a curve – is a wondrous skill he perfected as a model maker. How many people in the world can still do this? Photo by Katharine Dufault

Made of paper, Elmer’s glue and house paint, these sculptures reflect experimentation with facets of surrealism, cubism and pointillism, as well as the influence of many artists, especially Picasso. “He’s an artist who gets to me,” says Harper. Because each one is untitled (since he never planned on exhibiting them) the curators at Rye Arts gave them nicknames like Broadway Boogie-Woogie, Guernica and Radioactive Man.

To create his pieces, Harper follows no formal process – he doesn’t even sketch them in advance. “I just see it in my mind and I do it, like I eat, like I sleep,” he says. The designer estimates that he’s used more than six million pieces of paper over the years or, more specifically, “6,835,000 pieces,” he says with a wink. As for why they aren’t signed? “I don’t want to ruin them by putting my signature on them.”


Harper created his final piece, the owl, in 2000. He hasn’t created another paper sculpture since, and he was vague about the reason for the hard stop. Perhaps it was due to age (today he’s a sharp 98), or maybe he no longer needs the stress release that creating these sculptures provided. Either way, we’re grateful for the ones he did create over 40 years, as well as his many contributions to modern design.

Harper “borrowed” eyeballs from his daughter’s dolls (imagine explaining that to your therapist). In later years he purchased them from a toy supplier. Photo by Matt Crucius

Due to popular demand, the exhibition has been extended twice and is now scheduled to close on January 24, 2015. It’s a captivating mix of “I could do that” accessibility and “How does he do that?” magic, and I urge you to see it before it disappears for good. If you’re not in the New York area, buy the book and enjoy the trip into the wonderful world of Irving Harper.

“As soon as I was born I was an artist.” – Irving Harper

Photo by Katharine Dufault

How you can own your very own Irving Harper original: Donated to The Rye Arts Center by Irving Harper, this paper snake will be up for auction in January. Keep an eye on the RAC website for details.