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Thursday, October 4, 2012

Irving Harper

Irving Harper (1916-2015) studied to be an architect at Brooklyn College and Cooper Union. He got his first job as an architect with Morris B. Sanders. When Sanders was asked to design the Arkansas pavilion for the 1939-40 World's Fair, he put Harper in charge of interiors.

Harper decided that he liked this line of work better than architecture, because it was more varied and more entrepreneurial. Thus he went to work with Gilbert Rohde and was in part responsible for the Home Furnishings Focal exhibit at the World's Fair. Afterwards, he went to work for Raymond Loewy and designed interiors. Ernest Farmer, a colleague at Rohde's office, persuaded George Miller to hire Harper.

In 1947 Nelson put Harper in charge of designing trade advertising for the Herman Miller account, but he contributed to many designs that came out of the Nelson office.

According to Harper and John Pile, another designer who worked in the office, George Nelson felt that only one name should be associated with the work that came out of his office. He didn't mind if individual designers were given credit for their work in trade publications, but as far as the consumer was concerned, he wanted the firm to get the credit. As a result, Nelson received personal credit for the work of others in a number of instances.

Harper created the logo for Herman Miller in 1947, as well as numerous Howard Miller clocks, such as the numberless sunburst and the Chronopak series, and several pieces of furniture.

Irving Harper is featured in this week's video in the Why Design series by Herman Miller. The video is my favorite so far, although I have enjoyed the others very much.

Harper, who celebrated his 96th birthday in July, talks about working with George Nelson, about designing the Marshmallow sofa and the Thin Edge group, and he explains how he developed such an extraordinary talent for making paper sculptures. Harper estimates that he has made approximately 300 of the sculptures, which are displayed in his house or stored in his barn. The majority are masks, animals, figures, and abstract pieces inspired by pre-Columbian, African and Southeast Asian art, as well as the Cubism of Picasso.

When you see his paper sculptures, I think you'll be glad you watched the video.

From, and

Marshmallow sofa

Thin Edge cabinet

Howard Miller Model #2202
Sunburst clock

Herman Miller logo

Update: Irving Harper was still alive when this post was published. However, he died on August 4, 2015, which is reflected by date changes at the beginning of the post.


  1. WOW! Those paper sculptures are very inspiring, I'm totally in awe, I will have to share with my students! Thanks for sharing :)

    1. I found them to be so incredible that I had to watch the video several times, just to take them all in. There is no way to describe how beautiful they are or how overwhelming it is to see so many of them all together.

    2. Oh my. They are beautiful. When he said the bit about not sketching, he just dreams them and executes, I realized ... artistic genius.

    3. Isn't that unbelievable that he just created them in his head as he went along? Some of them are so incredibly intricate. It just blows my mind.

  2. Dana, you blow my mind sometimes with these posts! This was incredible. It think I've watched this video about 5 times now. There are so many designers behind the scenes working with the "big names" that maybe you never hear of or learn about. Many times they don't get credit for their work or if they do it's very quietly and many people don't hear about them. This was wonderful. I'm so taken with his paper designs. I LOVE working with paper and dabble in little designs at home and set or hang them around the house. My husband says "why are you displaying this paper... it's just paper". I need to show him this because paper can be pretty darn special. This made my day!!! A true artist at work. The envy I have for this kind of talent is overwhelming. Hope you don't mind if I use this video on my site soon. I must be shared!

    1. I'm so glad you enjoyed this post. Share away! I'd love to see some of your paper art too.

  3. Wow this video was the first time I heard about his paper sculptures and he's always been one of my favorite American Industrial Designers! Thanks for this incredible post!!

    1. Isn't he the most incredible man? I didn't know about his paper sculptures till I saw this video either. I'm just mesmerized by them.