Irving Harper: A Mid-Century Mind At Play Q&A
You Asked… Irving Harper & Curator Katharine Dufault Answered

Irving Harper, a local industrial designer, worked on his private pieces for about 50 years from 1950 - 2000.  He currently lives in Rye at the age of 98! The RAC is happy to display his personal creations in our Gallery until January 24, 2015, which have never before been shared publicly. Together Irving and Katharine answered many of your questions.


What materials did you use to make your sculptures with? | What kind of glue? | What type of paper?

Irving Harper used ‘everyday’ materials to create his art works. He used high quality art papers (acid free and color-fast) that were relatively inexpensive, and found objects such as: pine cones, toothpicks, electrical wire (left from the telephone repair guys) paperclips, nails and thread. He cut bamboo ‘filaments’ – very thin strips – cut from a bamboo blind. He used Elmer’s glue to stick all of his work and he knew that it took 2.7 minutes to adhere, and overnight to dry.

Did you ever make sculptures using other materials?

Irving Harper generally used paper and card-stock in various weights, or thickness, to create his work. He used the same paper supplies for his ‘industrial designs’ for his work and for his own artworks. He was very skilled at cutting, ‘scoring’, fielding and gluing his papers

Which piece used the most paper?

It is hard to know how much paper was used for any piece – Jeff Taylor (co-curator) estimates that there are over one-thousand cut pieces on the Owl.

How many types of paper did you use? | How many pieces of paper did you use every year? | Where did you get your paper?

Harper bought his paper at the art store to make sure it was good quality and would hold its edge and its color. He did not keep records of how much paper and card he used per year. He just bought what he needed and used it.

Did you paint some of them?

Harper did paint some of his art works. For example, the body of the owl is painted black and then the feathers were glued on top. The African inspired piece has brown painted strips of paper. And the Picasso cubist model of a nude women is painted grew to look like stone. Sometimes he painted the background of a piece – the feathered piece in the office, or the grey shadows under the birds.

What are the eyes made of?

As a child Irving Harper’s daughter had a favorite doll – the eyes were inspired from her dolls. The doll eyes used in Harper’s works were never taken from his daughters doll.  He really liked the moving eyes of the doll and ordered a lot of them from a doll manufacturing company to use in his art works.  In the gallery there are four pieces with eyes – Owl, Hand, Wolf totem and the Cyclops in flames.


How did you find time? | Why did you create your sculptures?

As an industrial design artist, working under George Nelson and the Herman Miller Company, Irving Harper was used to making models. Some include the infamous ball clock and marshmallow sofa. When he would return home after work Irving would use his free time to create paper sculpture projects as a form of stress relieving.   He simply made time for his hobby. Each project varied in size and depth and therefore could take him several hours and days to a week at a time.

Which piece took the most time? Which piece took the least time? How long did it take you to make all these things?

How long did they take to make is the million dollar question. Harper does not recall how much time he spent making each art work. He told me, he just worked on it until it was finished. However, Harper did say that the “Cyclops in Flames” sculpture took “a couple pot hours” And we do not know whether he literally means two hours or more, but not as long as a bigger piece.

How many pieces of art have you made?

I estimate that Harper has made around 400-500 art works. The Rye Art Center is delighted to have 77 pieces in the gallery which were primarily taken from his third floor and his barn. However, there are plenty left at his house, including over 111 still on the third floor! The works will stay on display at the Rye Arts Center until January 24, 2015.


How did you make the owl? | What is the base of the owl?

The base of the owl is made of crumpled paper, wrapped in tape and painted black. The feathers (approx. 1,000 pieces) were applied to the base.

How did you cut, fold and curve the paper? | How did you make the paper triangles? | How does the paper stand up?

Harper was trained as an architect and industrial designer and that training included knowing how to render models out of paper and card. He knew how to use a baled to cut perfect shapes that would be ‘scored” – or creased with the blunt side of the blade – and then folded along the ‘scored’ line and glued into place. The good quality paper and different ‘weights’ or thickness of paper determined its strength.

How did you make (or fold) the black birds?

Although the black birds look like Origami, they are the opposite! Origami is about folding paper to create 3-d shapes, but the birds have been cut and glued – two qualities that are not permitted in origami! Their legs are made from toothpicks painted red and their feet are cut from card and clued to the base.

How did you make the snake?

According to Irving Harper, the Snake was ‘merely repetition of a circular form.” He created the circles decorated with colorful triangle shapes and threaded them together to create a snake. Then he added the snake head which he made out of paper.

 What do you like about African art?

Irving liked the simplicity and symmetrical form of African art. He found he could easily render a like ness out of pear and card stock. Plus, he admired the artists Picasso very much and Picasso was very fond of African art as well!

Inspiration / Talent:

What was your first art piece? | How old were you when you started making these things? | Which was your last art piece?

Irving Harper cannot recall the very first piece he made. But he does know that the Owl is the very last piece he made. When that was finished in 2000 – 14 years ago – he placed it on the shelf in his living room and said to himself, “now my house is full, there is not more room, I am finished!”

Where did you get inspiration to make these? | What inspired you to create these pieces? | How do you come up with these ideas?

Irving Harper was inspired by many modern artists during his time such as Mondrian, Matisse and Picasso as well as Abstract, Indian and African Art.