Reclusive US designer Irving Harper shows his animal side

To enter Irving Harper’s home is to be confronted by a menagerie of such range and profusion that it could have escaped from Roald Dahl’s imagination. Toothy cats stalk across dresser tops, staring hungrily at the spike-feathered birds that perch on every available surface. Model elephants and horses march congenially across coffee tables and up on to shelves. And a winged boy, enveloped in a cloud of acorns, swoops down from the ceiling.

“That’s called ‘Cupid Attacked by Bees’,” says Harper. “Once a year the trees around here drop a load of tiny acorns, very pretty little things.”

Harper has been described as the greatest American designer most people have never heard of. After decades of living in obscurity, the 98-year-old is belatedly enjoying (for the most part) recognition for his classic mid-century designs, including the Marshmallow sofa, first manufactured by Herman Miller in 1956, and still in production today.

“I’ve never seen the Financial Times. What’s it like? Does this mean I’m going to get more visitors?” asks Harper, seated in the living room of his 19th-century farmhouse in upstate New York. “Oh my God. I’ve enjoyed talking to you, but I don’t want too many people round here.”

In truth, there is not much room for visitors. Harper’s animals, each a meticulously crafted paper sculpture, own the place. Even the walls are crammed with antelope heads jockeying for space among solemn masks and angels.

Harper’s preference for solitude isn’t simply the result of old age. The idea of peace and quiet drew Harper, his late wife Belle and daughter Elizabeth, to the three-storey house in Rye, a leafy commuter town about 30 miles north of Manhattan. “The house was called ‘Hidden House’ when I came and looked at it in 1954,” he says. “And it was definitely hard to find. I thought, ‘I’d love to be hard to find,’ so I bought it. And I’ve never regretted it.”

The neat, shingled building is folded away in a rural obscurity. A poorly marked dirt road leads visitors to a driveway that encircles a giant beech tree. “When I moved in, I was most impressed by the size of that tree,” says Harper. “I think it’s going to outlive me, and I hope it does.”

Belle, Harper’s wife of 69 years, died five years ago, but his daughter and her husband live nearby and visit him every Sunday. On my arrival, I’m greeted by a caretaker and led into the living room, where Harper is reading Michael Chabon’s novel, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay. It is mid-afternoon and the waning daylight has cast a shadow over the interior. Despite being almost 100, he reads, even in the autumn bleakness, without spectacles. “I read all the time, from morning to night, and in bed, too,” he says.

Mid-century furnishings lend the home a familiar feel, from the Charles Eames seat in the sitting room to the Marcel Breuer dining chairs. In the kitchen, red floor tiles and yellow painted cabinets provide a retro backdrop. Harper admits he has become part of the furniture, spending all day in his favourite chair, a grey-upholstered design made by his old friend and colleague, Ernest Farmer. “They’re going to have bury me in this chair,” he says.

The mention of mid-century American design usually brings to mind the names of a select few: Charles and Ray Eames, Raymond Loewy and George Nelson. Yet, there were other great talents among them, including Harper, who created some of the most imaginative and familiar designs of the era. The reason Harper didn’t become a household name is simple: most of his designs, including his Ball and Sunburst clocks, were attributed to his boss, Nelson.

Upstairs study, where Harper worked on his sculptures for almost 40 years

From 1947 to 1963, Harper worked as chief designer for George Nelson Associates in New York, overseeing an array of inventive projects that would help cement Nelson’s reputation as the “father” of American Modernism.

“I performed the function of being the engineer that handled the machinery and George was the pilot,” says Harper. “I was happiest being left alone with my work.”

It was over a weekend that Harper dreamt up the Marshmallow sofa, a basic metal frame covered with 18 discs. Keen to experiment with moulded plastic, he set out to create a sofa that was both low-cost and eye-catching. The experiment failed (traditional upholstery was used instead) but the design was so radical that when it was launched in 1956, catalogues had to reassure potential buyers of its comfort. The design is now celebrated as one of the earliest examples of Pop Art furniture design.

As for his paper sculptures, many are gentle riffs on works of art — and art movements — of the 19th and 20th centuries: from the haunted equines of Picasso’s “Guernica” to a sheet of hole-punched paper that owes much to the divisionism of the Neo-Impressionists.

More sculptures on a windowsill including an elephant and a bird’s nest

“I would see something in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and I’d say, ‘God, I’d like to have that’, but I can’t, see, because I can’t afford it. So I’ll do it in paper,” says Harper, who adopted the hobby to help cope with the stress of his day job.

In 1964, Harper had been put in charge of designing the Chrysler pavilion for the New York World’s Fair, a huge undertaking that began to take its toll on the designer. Desperate to find a soothing activity in the evenings, he nearly took up knitting, but found that paper sculpture came more naturally. “I didn’t have to direct my hands; my hands just knew what to do,” he says.

For the next 40 years or so, Harper — who had left Nelson the year before to set-up his own successful practice — dedicated his spare time to sculpture, spending weekends in the upstairs study translating his mind’s image into paper; he never sketched out patterns beforehand since the pleasure lay in imagining the forms.

Harper’s devotion to his pastime was so complete that he sacrificed the property’s garden. “When we moved here the ground was planted with vegetables and flowers. I said, ‘Oh my God, I can’t cope with that,’ he says. “So I ploughed it up and made a lawn out of it. I couldn’t become a full-time gardener and work on my sculptures, no way. The plants had to go.” Today the garden, left to its own devices, has become an oasis for passing deer.

Paper sculpture of a snake that Harper has donated for public auction

In 2000, with the house at bursting point, Harper gave up his paper work. Since then, he has welcomed the recognition that eluded him in his career. And after decades of showing little interest in sharing his sculpture with the public, Harper agreed to his first solo exhibition, which is currently on view at the nearby Rye Arts Center.

It is a late flourish of fame for a creative who spent his entire professional life in the shadow of others. Yet, as Harper points out, the sculptures have already served their purpose.

“I took art lessons, painting — I just couldn’t hack it,” he says, pausing to welcome the glass of vermouth and a plate of peanuts his caretaker has handed to him. “[The sculpting] came so spontaneously. I can’t tell you why or how. But, you know, it saved my life. I don’t know how I would have lived this long without it, maybe not as contentedly as I have.”

‘Irving Harper: A Mid-Century Mind at Play’ runs at The Rye Arts Center until January 24. A public auction of Harper’s snake sculpture will be held on January 10; ryeartscenter.org

Photographs: Suzanne Kantak; Katharine Dufault

Slideshow photographs: Suzanne Kantak

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