Irving Harper was an extremely prolific mid-century modern designer whose contributions have only come to light recently as a fresh wave of scholarship has rediscovered his work and reattributed many of the iconic designs of George Nelson Associates to Harper rather than the firm's eponymous leader. Irving Harper was responsible for the famous Herman Miller logo, the Marshmallow Sofa, and the Ball Clock, among countless other notable designs, and the absence of acknowledgement of his authorship by George Nelson was a major reason he resigned in 1963 and founded his own firm which went on to create designs for clients such as Braniff Airlines prior to his retirement in 1983. In a 2001 interview with Paul Makovsky in Metropolis Magazine, Harper said, "I'm grateful to George for what he did for me. 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."
Irving Harper passed away this August at the age of 99, and this week Wright Auctions in Chicago is offering nearly the entire body of work of the hundreds of extraordinary paper sculptures Harper made over nearly four decades for his personal creative explorations. Skilled in constructing paper maquettes of prototypes in his professional design career, Harper turned to paper and glue as his mediums of choice to create hundreds of unique figural and abstract sculptures. Harper began the ongoing series in 1963 as a project to help him unwind at night when he got home from a day of work at George Nelson Associates and it became a continuing passion in his life extending into his retirement. Harper only stopped creating paper sculptures in 2000 when he ran out of space to store them in his house and barn in Rye, New York.
Wright's auction of the paper sculpture collection this week presents many intriguing topics for appraisers. Harper refused to sell the sculptures during his lifetime and kept almost the entire collection intact with the exception of a few trades between other artists, stating in an interview quoted by Makovsky, "I like to have them around. They constitute my environment and I don't want to deprive myself of them." In a different interview published on the Herman Miller website, Harper further declared "I never sold any of my pieces. 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." (Source: http://www.hermanmiller.com/why/irving-harpers-world.html)
The paper sculptures have received a great deal of exposure in the last few years due to media coverage in the design community, the 2013 book Irving Harper: Works in Paper edited by Maharam Design Studio CEO Michael Maharam, and an exhibition of the collection at the Rye Arts Center in 2014-2015. Given that no paper sculptures have ever been sold, however, their market is completely untested. Wright has placed auction estimates ranging from around $1,000-1,500 to $5,000-7,000 depending on the size, complexity, and popularity of the sculpture (an example being the aggressive estimate for the owl who graced the front cover of Michael Maharam's book).
It is somewhat surprising the entire collection of several hundred sculptures will all be sold at once. While there is a community of fervent collectors who would be intrigued by the opportunity to purchase a Harper paper sculpture, it is difficult to imagine that this group would have the combination of funds and desire to snap up all of the sculptures at strong prices. Would any other appraisers like to weigh in with their thoughts about what sort of blockage discount would be appropriate in this situation? I'm very curious to see how the lots will perform when they are offered this Thursday at auction.
Wright has taken some steps to mitigate the impact of their flooding of the market, including producing a very polished pdf catalog available for download, commissioning a biographical essay by Paul Makovsky (who first reintroduced Harper to a new generation of the design community in his 2001 interview in Metropolis Magazine, which was reprinted following Harper's passing this summer and is an excellent profile well worth reading: http://www.metropolismag.com/July-August-2015/Vintage-Modern/), photographing the entire collection in a careful and cohesive manner, and most importantly, exhibiting the sculpture collection for preview in New York City rather than at their corporate location in Chicago. This both increases the collection's exposure to the visiting crowds in town for New York City's Winter Antiques Show opening this week and other major events in the art and antiques world being held there this month, and reflects an understanding of where many of the core bidder groups for the sculptures are located.
One of the biggest potential issues in my mind is that of condition. Twentieth century paper is not known for its conservation stability, particularly in terms of wood pulp and acid content. Wright does not state any condition information about the sculptures but includes a blank form to submit a condition report request. I did not see obvious evidence of condition issues looking through the photographs of the sculptures, but it seems incredible that constructions of paper and glue would be in stable, ph-neutral condition decades after creation and being moved multiple times. Perhaps Harper had the foresight to use acid-free paper? Has anyone had the opportunity to inspect them in person? How do they look? My sympathies go out to the poor souls responsible for completing the condition reports this week.
Moving beyond the shop talk about market and condition topics, the sculptures themselves are deserving of a much longer discussion on their own merits. They are superb. Bold, whimsical (in the best sense of the word), humorous and sophisticated, for me they represent the very best of Harper's portfolio. I've been following his paper sculptures since 2007 after reading the account by artist Matte Stephens published on Design*Sponge after his pilgrimage to meet Irving Harper and his wife at home in Rye, New York. This article can be viewed here: http://www.designsponge.com/2007/10/irving-harper.html. It is a charming account of Stephens' visit with Harper and the accompanying pictures add to the illustrations from Makovsky's 2001 profile with additional views of how Harper displayed the sculptures in their house.
Scrolling through the hundreds of sculptures included in the Wright auction, I was struck by how many of my favorite pieces were bold constructions in all black paper depicting animals or other figural forms. Previously I'd associated Harper's design career with a bright and colorful style, but in reviewing the body of sculpture as a whole I gained an appreciation for the more nuanced and quiet elements of his repertoire.
For someone familiar with art history, it is also a delight to view the sculptures and pick out the countless references and conversations with previous artworks throughout history. One could create a Surrealist parlor game simply identifying which works Harper was referencing in a certain creation. While some are very obvious, as is the case for the piece "Untitled (Guernica Horse)" others require a bit more time and consideration. Upon studying them as a complete body of work, I realized that the sculptures function as a visual catalog of Harper's design inspirations and reveal his extensive knowledge of art history ranging from traditional arts from many world cultures encompassing tribal masks to Amish quilts along with recurring riffs on modern art such as Calder stabiles and Louise Nevelson sculptures. The odes to modern art were some of my favorites and I have created a few side by side comparisons included below to illustrate the joy and aesthetic sophistication of Harper's work.
My final graphic presents a more direct example of how closely intertwined Harper's paper sculptures were with his overall creative life and professional design output, which is a point Makovsky also eloquently argued in his 2001 profile. Lot 198 in Wright's auction is an untitled owl sculpture that bears striking similarities to the "Eye Clock" his colleague Lucia DeRespinis designed while at George Nelson Associates. In an interview published in part on Design Within Reach, DeRespinis described "I’d been at George’s about a year and a half, and I started doing the clock thing... That was really Irving’s territory. But he really felt comfortable with me doing some. Nobody else ever did clocks when I was there." (Source: http://www.dwr.com/category/designers/d-g/lucia-derespinis.do) It is clear that Harper's paper sculptures were an essential element of his creative life and help illuminate the myriad influences that shaped his design work.