artwork by 30

irving harper

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i’m a big fan of artist matte stephens, so when he told me about an inspirational visit he recently had with the artist irving harper i was all ears. matte and his wife vivienne have impeccable taste and a wonderful appreciation for the designers and artists that have come before them (their house is a wonderful ode to classic mid century design) so i knew that if matte was really touched by this visit, it was something special. thankfully matte was kind enough to share his visit, and many photos from it (more photos here), with us here in his own words.

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to set up this piece i wanted to quote an article by paul makovsky at metropolis magazine. he said, “chances are you haven’t heard of irving harper, but you have seen his work. the marshmallow sofa is the quintessential icon of american modern design. designed by george nelson, right? well, not exactly. and those vintage howard miller 1950s ball clocks that you keep seeing on ebay? harper created them. he is one of the many designers who worked in the nelson office during its glory days.” irving harper is one of america’s great designers and rarely gets the credit he deserves for having created such iconic designs. so i’m so thrilled to share matte’s visit with him here. i hope you’ll enjoy it and perhaps check out some more of mr. harper’s work when you’re through. please click “more” for the full post.


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Our day started with waking up in Rye, NY feeling pretty rough from a long trip of bumpy trains and bad food. We walk down the stairs of our hotel to get a
car to Mr. Harper’s home. I’m really nervous and excited to meet such a great designer. We get close
to Mr. Harper’s home but the unfamiliar area is confusing and our driver can’t find it. I call Mr. Harper and tell him that we are close but can’t seem to locate his address. He is very nice about it and says he will meet us outside. When I saw him standing outside of our car I knew this man was special. He was dressed comfortably in a burnt orange sweater, brown pants and and well-worn pair of L. L. Bean deck shoes. We took a short walk up to the house and there stood a huge Banyon tree, probably the most beautiful tree I have ever seen. Mr. Harper’s wife Belle, was coming from the other direction so it seemed that she had been watching for us from the other entrance. When we remarked on the beauty of the huge old tree, Belle said that they had purchased the house because of the tree. Belle’s name aptly describes her, she is tiny but has a firm handshake. Not surprising for a former labor lawyer who once was a part of a case that was tried in front of the Supreme Court.

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While we had both been nervous, Irving and Belle and their house, which is a true definition of a “home”, made us feel very welcome and after just a few minutes we felt at ease as if we had known them for a long time. They have floor to ceiling bookcases in many of the rooms along with hundreds of pieces of art. I asked if they had a computer, and they said they had tried to use one a few years ago but stuck it in a closet (along with the television).

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Irving Harper devoted 17 years of his early career to George Nelson and Associates. The rest is history: his marshmallow sofa, clock designs, and graphic design work for both Howard Miller and Herman Miller are legandary. He started working on his paper sculptures as a way to wind down from a busy day of designing at the office. His retirement years were devoted more to his art. While I have been a huge fan of Mr. Harper’s design for a long time, when I saw his art, it just floored me. We went through the Harper home with Irving and Belle showing us around. Mr. Harper was in good spirits and we talked about the fickleness of the art world, and his time with Nelson and Associates. He took us to the big yellow barn on the property and showed us even more paper sculptures. These were the larger pieces and some of the most amazing things you will ever see. Huge intricate pieces made with much care. The paper sculptures have held up fairly well considering some of them are 50 years old or more. Some of the sculptures were made using leftovers from nature such as twigs or pine cones, while many others are made from byproducts of man: old telephone wire, styrofoam peanuts and drinking straws. Unfortunately the ones from the drinking straws have deteriorated quite severely. One of our favorites was a figure using one of Belle’s old mops to depict hair.

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I took around 260 pictures that day and am positive I missed things. I’m not a writer or a journalist but I felt I just had to document this man’s art. After he showed us around the house and barn, we all went to lunch at a Japanese restaurant and we all had the “lunch box” at Mr. Harper’s suggestion. We sat and talked about design, architecture, art, and life for a long time and could tell the waitress was getting impatient for us to leave as it was way past lunchtime at that point. I felt like I was dreaming. Here I am, a guy from Alabama with one of the designers who made Modern design great. Mr. Harper told us about what a pleasure it was working in the Nelson office because of the relaxed atmosphere where everyone was allowed to create at their own pace, and about Buckminster Fuller coming to the office, and about working on exhibits in Moscow during the Cold War. Irving also mentioned his great admiration for Charles Eames.

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When it was time for us to go, Mr. Harper insisted on giving us a ride in his car so we wouldn’t have to
spend more money on a cab. At age 91, Mr. Harper drives better than I do at 33. If there is anyone out there that you really admire, do whatever it takes to meet them. This whole experience was truly one of the highlights of my life.

Matte Stephens, 2007

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30 Comments

Michelle

This is such an amazing post, thank you so much Grace for sharing, and I have just been so inspired, and touched, thanks to Matt for your great story.

Andy

Awesome! That hanging piece is amazing. And Belle looks like a sweet little bad ass! I hope you post more pictures on your own blog. Thanks Matte!

Erin Lang Norris

WOW, Thank you Grace for getting this out there for all of us to see and read, and thank you Matte for making it all possible! This is some really amazing stuff.

zee

Fascinating stuff. Great pictures and great writing Matte. Sounds like a wonderful day!

Jen

What a wonderful, wonderful thing to do! Will there be more pictures posted later? I’d love to see the rest, and hear more about your conversations… They look like lovely, fascinating people…

christine

What a lovely thing to read first thing in the morning. I’m touched. Please share more pics!!!

grace

i used all but a handful of matte’s pictures, i just sent him an email to see if he’d be willing to post the rest on flickr or his blog. i’ll be sure to update this post with a link if he’s able to do that :)

grace

Tina

Stunning!
And inspiring!
Dicthing the TV can be such a good thing. I’m going to my studio….

katie

What amazing couple!!! I hope to see more photos.

And just a side note, the description of Belle and her firm handshake made me smile. I so appreciate a solid, firm handshake. It kind of drives me crazy, when I get a limp, weak hand.

Tom

it’s great to see harper getting some shine. the only major article i’ve ever read about him was from a 2001 issue of metropolis. i’ve been a fan of him since. thanks for posting this.

Matte Stephens

Belle and Irving Harper are such wonderful people. Irving is so pleased that he has fans out there.
We were going to put on a show for Irving but his health would not permit it.A design museum really should honor Irving for his contribution to the world of design.
We are going back up in November to spend more time with them.I talk with him on a regular basis now and love to hear his stories there are so many .We are going to do a video interview with him.
This was such a life changing experience for Vivienne and myself.

matte stephens

The picture of the lady in the glasses is Vivienne thats her in Eva Zeisels studio. We had the pleasure of visiting with her also:)

jackie

What a great trip!!!! This must have been a blast! What a wonderful insight for any artist or designer!

eileen

wow! that collection is amazing. someone needs to write a book about him.

tony zamora

Irving Harper is giant in the design world.
There has never been a more versatile
designer that excelled in as many areas,
Interior design, furniture, clocks, graphics, sculpture… It was my pleasure to work under his direction
for 3 years, a pure joy.

Diana Simon

I was struck hard with Irving Harper’s awesome paper sculptures. Can anyone give me any direction to a book other sites about paper construction? Diana

Laura Jinishian Davis

I loved reading your story. I’ve been looking for the designer of some bowls I have, and found his name in a posting on a website on the plastics industry a t Syracuse University.
Thanks.

Cherese LeBlanc

He is AWESOME! I’m so glad to learn about him. I love paper crafting and his sculptures are an inspiration. Thank you Irving and Matte for sharing this lovely man’s legacy.

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