Michael Bierut | Slideshows

Flat, Simple and Funny: The World of Charley Harper

Charley Harper, "Mystery of the Missing Migrants," from Beguiled by the Wild: The Art of Charley Harper, Flower Valley Press, 1994

A few years ago, we bought a little house at the southernmost tip of the Jersey Shore in a town called Cape May Point. It has a winter population of less than 250, which swells to over 4,500 when people like us come down for the summer.

Cape May Point is boring. There are no restaurants or mail delivery. There are only three businesses: the Cape May General Store, the lighthouse at Cape May Point State Park (admission $6 adults, $2 kids), and the biggest, the gift shop at the Cape May Bird Observatory.

I visited the gift shop a few years ago when we first started going down there. It was crowded, which it always is: sitting at the intersection of the east coast's two main migratory corridors, Cape May is a legendary destination for bird watchers, host of the annual World Series of Birding. To my local disgrace, I'm not even an amateur birdwatcher. So the gift shop's multiple editions of esoteric guidebooks and the artillery-like telescopic equipment were of only passing interest. Imagine my surprise, though, when in the corner I spotted a find of my own, a design book, of all things, from a name I hadn't heard in a while: Charley Harper.

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The first time I heard his name may have been when one of my professors at the University of Cincinnati was asked to name his favorite designers. It was a list you'd expect: Paul Rand, Bradbury Thompson, Milton Glaser, Joseph Muller-Brockman, Armin Hoffman, and...Charley Harper. Wait a minute. I remember my surprise: a designer could be named Charley?

Charley Harper was a local hero, unknown for years outside southern Ohio and small circles of birders and nature buffs. Born in West Virginia in 1922, he grew up on a farm, and in many ways he stayed a farm boy all his life, from his studies at the Art Academy of Cincinnati to his brief stint (New York didn't take) at the Art Students League: modest, self-deprecating, funny. He opened a studio in Cincinnati after WWWII and his illustrations from those days are quintessential examples of American postwar commercial art.

Arthur Lougee, art director of Ford Times, the house magazine of the car company, was an influential patron, and commissioned Harper's earliest nature paintings, including many of birds. His illustrations in the widely circulated Golden Book of Biology and The Animal Kingdom for the Golden Press consolidated his reputation as a wildlife artist — with a difference. "Wildlife art has traditionally been painted superrealistically," he once said. "But I've chosen to do it differently because I think flat, simple and funny." As a result, Harper has been called "the only wildlife artist who has never been compared to Audubon and never will be." He called his style minimal realism. "Instead of trying to put everything in when I paint, I try to leave everything out. I distill reality, thereby enhancing identity. I never count the feathers in the wings — I just count the wings."

He gravitated to limited edition silkscreens, and his style became ever more refined. As his work increased in rigor and precision, its debt to modernism became more pronounced, as did its connection to the output of designers like Rand and Hoffman, as well as McKnight Kauffer and Eric Nitsche. Yet he never lost his sense of humor, as demonstrated by the wince-inducing puns used to title his paintings ("Family Owlbum," "Frog Eat Frog," "Howlloween," to name a few). His success permitted him to become more selective in his commissions, working almost exclusively for clients who shared his passions like the National Park Service and the Cornell University Lab of Ornithology.

In his ninth decade came a curious coda to a long career: overnight celebrity. Fashion and interior designer Todd Oldham, a childhood fan of The Golden Book of Biology, rediscovered Harper —with a vengeance, it appears — and began collaborating with him on fabrics and home furnishings. It was an unlikely combination — the winner of the 1991 Perry Ellis Award for New Fashion Talent and an 85-year-old West Virginia farmboy — and it led to some unlikely results, including an Oldham-designed exhibition at Cincinnati's Contemporary Arts Center, the declaration of "Charley Harper Day" in Cincinnati on December 8, 2006, and, strangest of all, a monograph that might appropriately be called elephantine.

Charley Harper: An Illustrated Life dwarfs comparable tomes on Rand, Thompson, Muller-Brockmann — indeed, any other graphic design book you've ever seen, and even most art books. At 421 pages, with a trim size of 19.4 x 13.4 x 2.4 inches and a net weight of 12 pounds (Bruce Mau's Life Style is a svelte 4.5), it caused consternation in my house even before it arrived. "Did you spend $150 on an advance order from Amazon?" my wife inquired, examining our monthly Amex bill. "Who in the hell is Charley Harper?" When the book arrived, however, we were both impressed: it's beautifully produced, a clear labor of love for designer-author Oldham. But as a tribute, it struck me as somewhat ill-fitting, just too over-the-top and lavish for a humble, softspoken designer who claimed to be unable to draw a straight line without a ruler or a circle without a compass. Beguiled by the Wild, Harper's 1995 collection, weighs one-fourth as much, costs $100 less, and makes nearly as good an introduction.

Still, we are lucky to have both, for we no longer have the man. Charley Harper died on June 10th of this year. He was 85. "Minimal Realism," a memorial exhibition dedicated to the life and work of Charley Harper and his beloved wife of fifty years, Edie, opens this weekend at the Cincinnati Art Museum.

Posted in: Arts + Culture, Graphic Design, History, Obituaries

Comments [12]

beautiful, beautiful article, Michael. and beautiful, scrumptious work. thank you for the introduction.
debbie millman

Life is but a dream. Glad Mr. Harper's was, too. Word to the bird!

Joe Moran

Many of us also came to know his work through his amazing poster sfor the National Park Service. No web image will do them justice, as they are clearly intended for close scrutiny even in a 36x48 format. I believe the NPS printing office still has a few available.
Derrick Schultz

Thanks for this. For anyone who's not already read it, Dwell ran a short Harper interview last year - worth a look.

now we just need a joe bottoni book.
jay colvin

Charley Harper will always hold a special place in our hearts. The people of Cincinnati will find joy and whimsy in the recent exhibition Minimal Realism: Charley and Edie Harper, 1940-1960 on view now at the Cincinnati Art Museum. What a wonderful time to celebrate Charley's life and art.
On a side note...Todd Oldham is coming to the Art Museum on Saturday, Aug. 18 for a book signing. His new book Charley Harper: An Illustrated Life is absolutely amazing.
Thanks for sharing your Harper memory!
Cincinnati Art Museum

I heard Charley speak at the CAC within a week of Cincinnati declaring Charley Harper Day.

He was funny, witty, and utterly won over my skeptic husband (who is an engineer and felt the roundtable conference was akin to having teeth pulled). Never was I so glad to fight traffic downtown. It was a magical time.

By the way, of which professor were you speaking? Unless my memory is failing me, I thought Charley and Stan Brod were friends...

Thank you so much for this post. Harper has been a favorite of mine for a couple years now (thanks to an introduction by my friend Matt, and I'm so glad that you have used the prestigious Design Observer platform to honor Harper's brilliant work and to spread the word to other designers about his clever and timeless artistic contributions.
joy olivia

I am speechless, michael. lovely...this has so much "heart". and Oh man, do I love the Joe Bottoni comment. So appropriate...your best ever. The work is gorgeous, thank you.

I truely enjoyed your tribute to a Cincinnati great,C.H. I had to go to design school in St.Louis to learn from one of my professors
about how good Cincinnati design is and about
"Charley H." I was lucky enough to buy one of his prints from Clossons in Cincinnati.
I lost it to my wife after our divorce but it looks nice on her wall(Owls) when I visit my daughter!

What is it about Cincinnati?

Charley Harper and Jim Flora!

I just saw that AMMO books just published a beautiful, oversized (and pricey!) monograph of his work.

Jobs | July 18