Irving Harper

U.S.A. (1916–2015)
“Chances are you haven’t heard of Irving Harper,” wrote Paul Makovsky in a 2001 issue of Metropolis magazine, “but you have seen his work.” In his 60-year career, Irving Harper designed everything from the Herman Miller logo to innovative melamine dinnerware to the now-iconic Sunburst Clock and even the venerable Marshmallow Sofa – all under the name George Nelson Associates.

“I’m grateful to George for what he did for me,” Harper told Makovsky. “While he was alive I made no demands whatsoever. But now that he’s gone, whenever the Marshmallow Sofa is referred to as a ‘George Nelson design,’ it sort of gets to me. I don’t go out of my way to set things right, but if anybody asks me who designed it, I’m perfectly happy to tell them.”

After studying architecture at Brooklyn College and Cooper Union, Harper got his start in the 1930s with Morris B. Sanders, where he designed interior exhibits for the 1939–1940 New York World’s Fair. Realizing a greater affinity for design than architecture, Harper then went to work in the early ’40s as a draftsman with Gilbert Rohde and a designer in the department-store division of Raymond Loewy Associates.

Beginning in 1947, he embarked on one of the more prolific periods of his career after accepting a job offer from George Nelson, with whom he stayed on as design director for the next 16 years. 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 the company uses today. “There was no project to do a logo,” he says. “It was probably the cheapest logo campaign in advertising history.” In 1953, Harper designed a groundbreaking line of melamine dinnerware, Florence Ware, for Prolon (a consumer line by the Pro-phy-lac-tic Brush Company of Florence, Massachusetts), which is now included in MoMA’s permanent collection.

After Harper parted ways with Nelson, he and Philip George teamed up to form their own studio, Harper+George. They joined the ranks of Alexander Calder, Alexander Girard and Emilio Pucci as contributors to Braniff Airlines’ legendary brand – in the late 1960s, the duo was hired by the fashion-forward airline to design ticket counters and VIP lounges. Harper also collaborated with George on projects for Hallmark and Jack Lenor Larsen, among others. The partnership ended in 1983, but Harper continued to create, filling his house and barn in Rye, New York, with elaborate and innovative paper sculptures that serve as reminders of his skill at blurring the thin line between art and design.