Keeping Time

The William Dorsey Collection

William, Annette, Nathaniel, and Cordelia Dorsey.

“Water, water, everywhere, nor any drop to drink.”
Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Like a thirsty man surrounded by saltwater, visitors to our midcentury modern home often glimpse more than 100, non-operating clocks on the wall and have this reaction. What use is a clock that isn’t plugged in and doesn’t tell time? The answer is that these are no ordinary clocks, as even a cursory inspection reveals. George Nelson and his team of designers—particularly Irving Harper—cared about function, but they were inspired by art, sculpture, innovation, and the philosophy of time.

A January 1, 1960 article in the New York Times put it succinctly. “Mr. Harper, seeking the soothing effect of shifting sands in hour-glasses, the mechanical wonders of eighteenth century clocks, and a new sculptural quality in time pieces, arrived [at the Motion Notion series]....By employing materials alien to clocksmiths of old, he has achieved a startling group of hypnotizing designs.” The designs are no less hypnotizing or influential sixty plus years later.

Irving Harper

Irving Hoffzimer was born in 1916 in the Lower East Side of New York. He studied architecture at Cooper Union School of Architecture before working as a draftsman for Gilbert Rohde and later finding employment at the firm of Morris B. Sanders; he contributed to several designs for the 1939 World’s Fair in New York working with both. In 1940 he married Belle Seligman and changed his last name to Harper when Belle refused to take the name Hoffzimer. During World War II, Harper served for both the U.S. Army and U.S. Navy, returning to the workforce in 1946 designing department store interiors for Raymond Loewy Associates.

In 1947, Harper began working at George Nelson & Associates designing many of the company’s most iconic works during his seventeen years with the firm including the Ball Clock, Marshmallow Sofa, and Herman Miller's iconic logo with the red M and many more. He went on to design the Chrysler Pavilion for the 1964-1965 World’s Fair, his design lauded as the “surprise of the fair” before forming the design firm Harper+ George with fellow former Nelson designer, Phillip George in 1964. Their list of clients included Braniff Airways International for whom he designed the script that was featured on the iconic Boeing 747 known affectionately as the “Big Orange”. In 1983, after nearly 20 years, Harper+George dissolved though Harper continued his career designing for several more years under the firm name of Irving Harper, Inc.

It was in 1963 that Harper began creating his paper sculptures (to deal with the stress of designing for the World’s Fair), his oeuvre consisting of more than 300 works that he mostly kept to himself. Though his art was the feature of a retrospective, Irving Harper: a Mid-Century Mind at Play at The Rye Art Center in 2013 and of the 2014 Rizzoli book Irving Harper: Works in Paper by Michael Maharam. In 2016, a year after his death at ninety-nine, Wright hosted an auction dedicated to his art.

Today, Irving Harper designs can be found in several museum collections including the Museum of Modern Art, New York and The Whitney Museum of American Art, New York.

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Auction Results Irving Harper