Irving Harper

Before this week, I had assumed that the Nelson Marshmallow Sofa and the Nelson Ball Clock were designed by their eponym, George Nelson.1 This is untrue, as I learned in an epitaph written by Michael Bierut this week:

RIP Irving Harper, quiet designer behind George Nelson’s iconic products

Irving Harper, the designer responsible for these objects, passed away last week at the age of 99. An obituary in the New York Times describes his role working with Nelson:

Mr. Harper was famously obscure, working as an industrial designer from 1947 to 1963 for George Nelson, who was often credited with the company’s creations for the Herman Miller furniture line.

Researching Harper’s career reveals a body of work that is as diverse as it is inspiring. For example, he designed the iconic Herman Miller “M” logo, without necessarily intending to do so. DWR’s profile of Harper describes the circumstances:

One of his early projects for Nelson was Herman Miller’s first-ever ad. There was not yet any photography of the furniture, so Harper instead rendered a large “M” – for “Miller” – which is essentially the same logo design that the company uses today. “There was no project to do a logo,” he says. “It was probably the cheapest logo campaign in advertising history.”

Harper described himself as a generalist and executed an impressive body of graphic design work in addition to his industrial design work. Perhaps even more astounding is the world of sculptures Harper created within his home over the span of 40 years. These works are incredible and prompted both a gallery exhibition and a book. However, this was never Harper’s intention. His sculptures were private works created as an antidote to the stressful projects he worked on during the day. He initially considered knitting, but the medium of paper proved a more natural fit for his hands. In a video made for the exhibition, he describes the effects of his work:

Many of the things I do require repetitive behavior, and then they build up to something else. The reason I like the repetition is that I found it relieves stress, and it was very soothing. (5:12)

He didn’t think of himself as an artist:

I never thought in terms of being an artist. I never envisioned myself as an artist. I just made them as they occurred to me and then I went on to the next after it was all done until I ran out of space and I stopped. (6:12)

And he never stopped to think of the commercial value of his creations, as quoted in Herman Miller’s WHY:

“I never sold any of my pieces,” Harper says today. “I had all the money I wanted. Then I would have lost my sculptures and just had more money. I just wanted to have them around.”

If Harper was born of this generation, I can’t imagine him ever tweeting or Instagramming his work. I don’t think it would have occurred to him. In a world where over-sharing is the norm and every creative act is seemingly purposed to exhibit, sell, or self-promote, not only is Harper’s incredible body of work inspiring, but his quiet approach is a fresh breath of air.

Also, be sure to read Sam Grawe’s personal remembrances of Harper in the last years of his life. Taken together with Herman Miller’s video, it offers a heartwarming glimpse into Harper’s home and life.

  1. It is worth noting that both Herman Miller and DWR credit Harper in their descriptions of these products.