You Should Know: Charley Harper

Mindy Wagner, Former Design Director

Article Category: #Design & Content

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A sample of Charlie Harper's work

I'll admit it... Old Navy introduced me to the art of Charley Harper (1922-2007). Actually, I take that back. Dooce introduced me to him in this post, but she was linking to a $130+ book I could never bring myself to buy. So when Old Navy let Todd Oldham, a superfan, go nuts and create a line of kids stuff using Charley Harper's artwork, I immediately ran out and bought his designs for all the little people on my gift list.

Charlie Harper Memory Game from Old Navy

When I dug deeper, I realized why his work felt so familiar. It was found in Ranger Rick, one of my favorite magazines as a kid. And in the Golden Book of Biology, a book I can remember pouring over at the local library. (If anyone wants to buy me an extravagant Christmas present, a gently used copy goes for about $150 on eBay.... just sayin'.)

Charlie Harper - Golden Book of Biology

From the Golden Book of Biology, 1962

Born and raised on a farm in West Virginia, he studied art at the Art Academy of Cincinnati. His subject matter was primarily nature - birds and other wildlife - which he rendered in a signature style he named "minimal realism". He started his career in a design studio, and it shows. He was influenced by Cubism and Minimalism - and probably designers such as Paul Rand - and is considered a part of the American Modernist movement. About his style he says:

I don't try to put everything in; I try to leave everything out. I never count the feathers in the wings; I just count the wings.

Charlie Harper Cardinal

He is known for his limited edition serigraphs, but also produced commercial work for tons of magazines in the 50s, 60s and 70s including some great stuff for the Ford Motor Company's magazine, Ford Times. He was commissioned to do a series of posters for the National Park Service and illustrated Betty Crocker's Dinner for Two Cookbook. He worked as an artist and designer for over 60 years, so you'll find his work in a variety of places.

Charlie Harper Ford Times cover

Copyright Ford Motor Company

His way of seeing speaks to me as a web designer. I love his abstracted geometric forms, precise symmetry, bold color palettes, and playful use of positive and negative space. The images are both elegant and amusing. You can't help but laugh at his mischevious cardinals and smiling ladybugs. He distills things down to their simplest form, yet still conveys everything necessary to make the animal and environment immediately identifiable. It's all the more impressive when you realize he didn't have Adobe Illustrator to do the legwork for him. As a pixel-pushing designer, this quote from Charley resonates with me:

In a world of chaos, the picture is one small rectangle in which the artist can create an ordered universe.

Charlie Harper Birds

I received a copy of "Beguiled By The Wild: The Art of Charley Harper" as a birthday present, and found an entirely new reason to crush on Harper. For each piece of art he has written quirky little puns that entice you to look at the work in a new light. Often, the words help you to find something in the piece you didn't notice originally. His writing is both cheesy and lovable, and kind of Suess-like. Full of tongue twisters and incredibly fun to read aloud. Take this one for example:

Charlie Harper - Whiteout

Welcome to the world, little whitecoat, baby harp seal with tearful eyes. Warm and cuddly in your immaculate pelt, you are helpless and defenseless on the arctic ice; you cannot swim, you can scarcely crawl. And you are so trusting.  We think you are beautiful.  We love you. We hear your cries of pain and terror under the hunter's club.  But we would wear you. Goodbye, little whitecoat, from the endangering species – those friendly folks who bring you to extinction.

You can find more of Charley's puns here or in the book.

I'm glad Harper's iconic work has made it to the masses and is being reinvented in new and interesting ways, like this amazing line of skateboards from Habitat:

Charlie Harper skateboards from Habitat

Almost makes me want to skateboard. Then I remember I'm 30 and nearly killed myself when I tried at 16.

Harper was a seriously talented guy, sure to inspire many designers to look at their work in a new way. If you're not already a fan, I definitely suggest you get to know his art and style.

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*Note: I'm hoping to make this a regular series. If you have an artist or designer you would like to see profiled, let me know in the comments below!

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