It was once the case that design and the people who executed it were largely anonymous. In the second half of the nineteenth century, this began to change. The studios of William Morris and Christopher Dresser, the Wiener Werkstätte, and the Bauhaus all turned out brilliant work that moved design forward, but those who found acclaim tended to be charismatic, conceptual forces who brought new ideas to public light—creators, yes, but also influential editors of a refined sensibility, directing over the shoulders of designers who labored at their instruction. By the 1950s, marketing had become a popular tactic, and celebrity a widespread factor in the persona of products. George Nelson stood tall in this crowd—a bright and worldly New York archetype with a good eye and a gift for banter, whose work cut across the fields of interior, industrial, and exhibition design.
In the 1940s, Nelson began a long association with Herman Miller, and subsequently, the clock manufacturer Howard Miller. As a furniture designer and design director at Herman Miller, he recruited such innovators as Charles and Ray Eames, Alexander Girard, and Isamu Noguchi. The Nelson office also continued to work independently on its own designs, contributing to the invention of many familiar elements of modern living, including the shopping mall, the multimedia presentation, and the open-plan office system. The man who stood behind Nelson through his most pivotal years and iconic products was Irving Harper, whose accomplishments have only recently come to receive the attention they merit.
Our very personal experience with Irving Harper began in 2001 with the re-edition of textile designs he had created for George Nelson fifty years earlier. We had come upon samples of these obscure textiles, and, with thanks to former longtime Herman Miller and George Nelson employee Hilda Longinotti, subsequently learned of Irving, who had spent seventeen years with Nelson and was responsible for much of the Nelson studio’s best-known work, including the Marshmallow Sofa, countless Howard Miller clocks, and the enduring 1950s-era Herman Miller logo.
Irving lives near Manhattan, so I phoned him up spontaneously and was greeted by a lively eighty-four-year-old who was eager to assist. Through our collaboration, he shared his sense of having been overshadowed by Nelson and overlooked by design history. Though he never thought to try a computer, as thanks, I purchased an iMac for him in hopes of igniting his curiosity. Together we made his first trip to Google, where I typed in his name and watched his awe at the record of his accomplishments—an incredibly touching moment.
During my visits with Irving, I couldn’t help but be amused by the amazing menagerie of paper sculptures he had created over forty years, and which kept him company as he spent nearly every day reading in his glass-enclosed sun porch. A decade passed, and I made a long overdue visit and found Irving to be as sturdy as ever at ninety-five. His collection hadn’t fared as well under the sun, dust, and neglect, and I proposed that we restore and document these fragile works to create a lasting record, and perhaps share them with a broad audience. We’re pleased to do so and hope you find the lesser-known side of the little-known Irving Harper to be as charming and expressive as we do.
A version of this text was originally published in Irving Harper: Works In Paper (Skira Rizzoli, 2013). Irving Harper: A Mid-Century Mind at Play is on view from September 14 through November 8, 2014, at the Rye Arts Center Gallery in Rye, New York.
Images: © D. James Dee.