irving harper

by Grace Bonney

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.

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.

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.



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).

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.



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.


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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