Irving Harper, Creator of the Marshmallow Sofa, Dies at 99

September 10, 2015

By SAM ROBERTS
September 10, 2015

Irving Harper, who pioneered Pop Art furniture design with whimsical mid-20th-century modernist classics like the marshmallow sofa, the ball clock and the sunburst clock, died on Aug. 4 at his home in Rye, N.Y. He was 99.

The cause was kidney failure, his daughter, Elizabeth Harper Williams, said.

Mr. Harper was famously obscure, working as an industrial designer from 1947 to 1963 for George Nelson, who was often credited with the company’s creations for the Herman Miller furniture line. Even Mr. Harper’s death last month received scant attention, except in local newspapers.

Mr. Harper’s creations included exhibits at the 1939 and 1964 World’s Fairs in New York, department store interiors and the Herman Miller company logo (an evolving stylized letter “M”). As a hobby he produced a fanciful menagerie of intricate paperboard and balsa wood sculptures of animals.

But his most enduring legacy is the sofa he conceived one weekend after Mr. Nelson had embraced a Long Island plastics manufacturer’s method of making inexpensive molded 12-inch diameter discs.

The plastic proved impractical, but Mr. Harper playfully assembled 18 upholstered discs as if they were floating on a 52-inch-long metal frame. As the company took pains to explain in its catalog, “Despite its astonishing appearance, this piece is very comfortable.” The sofa originally sold for $452 in 1956 (the equivalent of almost $4,000 today).

About 150 were purchased from 1957 to 1961; one of the original models was auctioned off in 2003 for $30,420. A custom 104-inch-long model sold at auction this year for $112,500.

The sofa now comes in 12 colors and retails for $5,499 in the Herman Miller catalog. (The company still assures potential customers, “And even though you might not think so, just looking at it, it’s very comfortable too.”)

The catalog describes “love seat #5670” as the Nelson Marshmallow Sofa and lists the designer as George Nelson, as was his firm’s practice. But the George Nelson Foundation website attributes it to Mr. Harper.

Mr. Harper lived in a 19th-century farmhouse in Rye, where he and his wife moved from Greenwich Village in 1954. It was filled with hundreds of hissurreal sculptures, riffs on objects he had admired in museums or galleries but could hardly afford. After reimagining them, he could not part with the sculptures, at any price.

“I never sold any of my pieces,” he was quoted as saying in “Irving Harper: Works in Paper,” published in 2013. “I had all the money I wanted. Then I would have lost my sculptures and just had more money.” (One was donated to the Rye Arts Center after an exhibition last January, and most will be auctioned off; Mr. Harper left the decision about their disposition to his daughter.)

He was born Irving Hoffzimer on Manhattan’s Lower East Side on July 14, 1916. His father, David, manufactured children’s books. His mother was the former Rebecca Gross.
He attended Brooklyn College and Cooper Union.

After he married Belle Seligman, a labor lawyer, he changed the family’s surname to Harper. She died in 2009. In addition to his daughter, he is survived by a sister, Phyllis Hoffzimer.

As a draftsman for Gilbert Rohde, Mr. Harper worked on exhibits for the 1939 New York World’s Fair, was hired by Raymond Loewy Associates to design department store interiors, and in 1947 joined George Nelson Associates, where he handled the Herman Miller furniture and Howard Miller clock accounts (including the numberless timepieces that featured balls on the end of spokes).

In 1964, he and Phillip George started their own design company, where Mr. Harper worked until he retired in 1983.

Mr. Harper’s work helping to design the Chrysler pavilion for the 1964 World’s Fair, in Flushing Meadows, Queens, involved creating a lake with islands featuring different elements of automobile manufacturing, including a walk-in engine.

The project was so stressful, Mr. Harper told The Financial Times last year, that he considered taking up knitting to relax. He then turned to paper sculpture, which seemed to come more naturally, and continued that work until about 2000, when he ran out of room.

“I didn’t have to direct my hands,” he said. “My hands just knew what to do.”

Originally published by The New York Times