Whimsy by Design:
Tucked away in Greenhaven lies a secret kingdom of textures, shapes, and colors.
By Robin Jovanovich
Tucked away in Greenhaven lies a secret kingdom of textures, shapes, and colors. In the living room, where he can sit in his reading chair and be close to many of his subjects, is Irving Harper. “I like to have my toys around me,” said the mid-century industrial designer, well known for his contributions to George Nelson Associates, notably the 1949 Ball Clock, the Sunburst Clock, and the 1956 Marshmallow sofa, as well as his interior designs for Raymond Loewy Associates.
It was when Harper was designing the Chrysler pavilion for the 1964 World’s Fair that he started making paper sculptures. “The project was huge, the timeline was short, and I was nervous, so to relax I started gluing pieces of paper together,” he recalled. “I enjoyed it so much I made hundreds of things.”
All three floors of his converted farmhouse are filled with his paper sculptures, close to 300 of them. Sixty of them will be on display at the Rye Arts Center solo retrospective, “Irving Harper: A Mid Century Mind at Play,” which opens on Sunday with a reception from 1-3. This is the first public exhibit of his “toys.”
They’re not always easy to describe in a few words: some seem to be ready to take off; others seem to look right through you. His last work is an omniscient owl that could — and maybe should — rule the world. He possesses so much wisdom and dignity.
Many of his figures and masks and collages owe something to Cubism and Picasso, but there is nothing derivative about Harper’s work. His works are friendlier, more playful. He finds pleasure in complexity. He was reading Nobel Prize winner J. M. Coetzee’s novel “Disgrace” when we arrived for our interview.
Harper said mid-century was the last gasp for true design. “Computers changed everything.” As an artist who’s arrived at an age when his fingers are no longer able to use an Exacto knife or a single-edge razor, Harper said he’s heartened that he was able to use his hands for so long and in so many ways. And they’re wondrous ways.
Does he have a favorite among his “family” of sculptures? “No. Whatever I was doing at the time was my favorite,” he replied with a gleam in his eye. He ran out of shelf space after the owl.
Harper has lived in Rye for 60 years, another well-kept secret until Katharine Dufault and Jeff Taylor invited him to come to the Jim Langley exhibit at the Rye Arts Center. They are the curators of Harper’s upcoming show.
Irving Harper may be an iconic (a word true icons avoid) industrial designer, but he will long be remembered for his peaceable kingdom of toys.