Focus On: Artist Irving Harper

by Liz Dowling

I admit, I had never heard of Irving Harper.  I didn’t know about the Marshmallow Sofa (one of the earliest examples of Pop Art furniture Harper invented in 1956).  Or the 1949 Ball Clock he designed.

I was introduced to Harper’s incredible paper sculptures at a solo retrospective at The Rye Arts Center on January 10th.  The show featured 80 of his sculptures, with a special one being auctioned off that evening.  The snake.

The Snake

The Snake

Irving Harper was the chief designer for George Nelson (Nelson was Director of Design for the Herman Miller furniture company) for 17 years.  George Nelson Associates designed much of the 20th century’s most iconic modernist furniture.



In 1964, Harper was asked to design the Chrysler Pavilion for the New York World’s Fair.  It was a huge undertaking.  To relieve the stress from this project, he started creating his own art in the evening.  Years of making 3D paper models of projects as an architect and industrial designer prepared him well for his new hobby.

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Harper, now 98, created 300+ paper sculptures over a 36 year period that fill his 19th century farmhouse in Rye.  He made his last sculpture in 2000, the owl.  To quote him, “You take a flat piece of paper and cut it into a shape.  Then you score it and you bend it and it becomes three-dimensional.  That’s the secret of the whole thing.”  He never intended to sell or exhibit them.  They were for his own personal pleasure.

Irving Harper Photo Credit:

Irving Harper
Photo Credit:  Leslie Williamson



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Irving liked to use doll eyes in his sculptures.

Katharine Dufault and Jeff Taylor, co-curators for the exhibit: Irving Harper: A Mid-Century Mind At Play, discovered his creations on a visit to his home.  The gallery committee went to see if they could use Harper’s Marshmallow Sofa in an exhibition about chairs and were stunned to see intricate paper sculptures covering every surface.  Getting Irving to part with any of them for an exhibition was the hard part!

Katharine Dufault

Katharine Dufault

Harper's last sculpture - The Owl

Harper’s last sculpture – The Owl

P1060202 The influence of Picasso, Matisse, Mondrian and Jasper Johns are visible in his sculptures.  He covers art movements that include Cubism, Surrealism, Op Art and Abstract Expressionism ~ all in three dimension.

Similar to Mondrian "City Grid"

Similar to Mondrian’s “City Grid”



Picasso "Guernica"

Picasso “Guernica”

When Harper agreed to show his work at The Rye Arts Center, he generously donated one of his pieces to be auctioned off with all proceeds going to support the Rye Arts Center.  This is the one and only paper sculpture Irving Harper has ever parted with.

Kate and Paul

Kate and Paul

My husband and I were chatting with our friends Kate and Paul Conn during the January auction, when the dark horse (Paul) innocently raised his paddle at the very last minute to claim the Irving Harper snake.


Kate was stunned when the entire room turned to look at her.  I am quite certain my husband hid our auction paddle!


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This was a one-of-a-kind exhibition.  I am so happy I saw it and that my friends have this piece of history.  Now I can run over to their house to get my Irving Harper fix anytime I want!

Taking their snake home

Taking their snake home

His name is "Harper"

His name is “Harper”

For more information on Irving Harper:

The Rye Arts Center

Herman Miller

Irving Harper: Works in Paper

the wry home

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Missie January 30, 2015 - 11:53 pm

Super great post Liz! Your photos really capture the dimension and vividness of Harper’s work. We are lucky that the Rye arts center was able to forge this relationship. We are even luckier to know the Conns and visit “Harper” whenever we can!

Paul Conn February 7, 2015 - 10:24 pm

Thanks for being with us during the auction Liz and for penning this lovely blog. You’re welcome to visit Harper anytime! xo

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