Irving Harper is one of the living legends of mid-century modernism. Born in 1916, he will celebrate his 95th birthday this July and he is still being re-discovered in this later stage of his life for his contribution to the design world. Harper was a designer for George Nelson Associates from 1947 - 1963, but was not always recognised personally for his work as at the time individual designers were only credited in trade publications, the consumer would see the design credited to the firm. So for much of his life he has been a bit of an unsung hero, even though his designs are some of the most recognised (and still very much coveted) of the 1950's and 1960's.
(above) Portrait of Irving Harper by Leslie Williamson, 2010.
It was during Harper's time with George Nelson Associates that he worked on a number of projects for Herman Miller, most notably designing our logo, which he first sketched in the late 1940's and which we're proud to still be using today. Harper has said (in Metropolis Magazine, June 2001) that our logo came about because when he first started on our graphic brochures, there were no photographs yet to work with, all he had was our name, so he created a stylised 'M' and used it initially in woodgrain to reflect most of the furniture of the period. It was refined as time went by, you can see how it was used in a graphic brochures (below) from the early 1960's.
(The above images are courtesy of the fabulous Matte Stephens who's quite the expert on Harper - read about the time he visited Irving and his wife in their home here)
Harper was also the man behind the Marshmallow Sofa, which was conceived in 1954 specifically to explore a production method of injecting moulded plastic cushions. The production method proved unsuccessful, which is why we manufactured it with conventional upholstery - an interesting story behind an iconic piece of furniture.
Harper has fond memories of working with George Nelson. "I have a tremendous respect for him. He made it all possible. His biggest contribution was to allow designers to do their own thing. He never pressured you to design anything you didn't want to do. He was like Diaghilev, able to locate talents who were brilliant in their own way, allowing them to flourish." And he goes on the describe the studio "The atmosphere was like a school," he says "An atelier-studio with everybody running around. Nelson would let you take all the time you wanted." ( Metropolis Magazine, June 2001). It's a fitting and romantic description for a time and place that produced so much wonderful work.
During his career Harper worked across many mediums including graphics, objects, furniture, interiors and textiles - he really was the quintessential multi-disciplinary designer. These days Irving lives in an apartment in Rye, New York where he is surrounded by his paper sculptures, a passion he has worked on most of his life. The New York Times ran an article only recently about Harper which included some wonderful photos of his home and sculptures, a few of which we'll leave you with as a wonderful tribute and testament to one of the great designers of our time.
(Photographs courtesy The New York Times Magazine)
As well as the articles and sources referred to above, you can learn more about Irving Harper through a Facebook page set up in his honour.