January 28, 2016

$1.2 Million Irving Harper Sale Sets Records

Most architects and designers rely on wood, metal, and fabric to make their creations, but for the famed, late industrial designer Irving Harper, his preferred medium was paper. Over the course of the last several decades, he created hundreds of intricate paper sculptures using not much more than a pair of scissors and construction paper. On January 21, 306 of his works were put on the auction block at Wright. Within hours, 99 percent of those pieces sold for $1.2 million, a new record for the Chicago-based auction house.

One item in particular that stole the show was a 30-inch-tall owl, which fetched $48,750 (original estimates were set between $7,000 and $9,000). This was the final piece Harper would create before his death in 2015 at the age of 99.

Before passing away, Irving and his family invited Richard Wright, president of Wright, to Harper’s home in Rye, New York, to make a proposal of what to do with his estate. This included his massive collection of paper sculptures, which was on display throughout his house.

“I remember asking him if he wanted to donate them to a museum, and he basically didn’t want to donate anything until after his death, with all of the proceeds going to his family,” Wright says. “He was very emotionally attached to his pieces; they literally surrounded him around the house.”

As an industrial designer, one of his earliest clients was furniture behemoth Herman Miller. In fact, one of Harper’s first projects involved designing the company’s now iconic red “M” logo. In the years since, he’s designed numerous pieces for the brand, including its popular Ball Clock. Over the years he’s either worked for or collaborated with Walker China, Koch & Lowry, and George Nelson & Associates among others. His works have been on display at the Montreal Decorative Arts Museum and Cooper Hewitt, and Rizzoli published a coffee table book on his paper masterpieces entitled, “Irving Harper: Works in Paper.”

In addition to many friends, fellow designers, and collectors purchasing Harper’s works, the Herman Miller Archives was also an active buyer, releasing the following statement: “The Herman Miller Archives acquired a number of pieces in the sale with the goal of honoring, preserving, and sharing the design legacy of Irving Harper—a designer with great significance to their history.”

Of his paper creations, Harper once said in an interview, “I got into doing things in paper because when I was working and making presentations, I would make models, and so I got to be good with paper. I did a lot of it when I was working with George [Nelson] to relieve stress and just relax.” Here’s hoping that the sold sculptures will continue to bring similar sensations throughout their new homes.

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