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Artist worked for Playboy, Sun-Times

Norman Nelle Harris 1954 photo.

Norman and Nelle Harris in 1954 photo.

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Updated: July 22, 2013 6:58PM

Back when Playboy magazine was so new that the covers featured women with their clothes on, artist Norman “Norm” Harris was struck by the devil-may-care insouciance of publisher Hugh Hefner.

“Everyone on the staff would be working, and Hugh Hefner would come in at 2 in the afternoon,” Mr. Harris’ daughter, Rochelle, remembers him telling her.

As Playboy’s associate art director from 1955 to 1958, Mr. Harris, who died Tuesday at age 90 at the Carlton nursing center on Chicago’s North Side, created some of the magazine’s early covers.

He also designed the logo for Gingiss Formal Wear that turned an “I” in Gingiss into a tuxedoed man, taught at the School of the Art Institute and was the longtime art director for the promotions department of the Chicago Sun-Times and Chicago Daily News.

“He was a fine designer,” said Art Paul, who was Playboy’s first art director.

And always busy, usually holding down more than one job at the same time.

From 1953 to 1955, he was art director for the ad agency Burton Browne, whose owner created Chicago’s Gaslight Clubs, a string of private key clubs that featured scantily clad women — and inspired Hefner to start the Playboy clubs. Then, while also working there and then for Playboy, he taught at the School of the Art Institute from 1954 to 1961, his daughter said, and from 1960 to 1961 was a designer for Bert Ray Studio, which specialized in artwork for the medical field.

He worked for the Daily News and Sun-Times starting in 1961 and continuing through 1995. And starting in 1964, he worked for the newspapers’ then-owner, Field Enterprises, preparing logos and broadcasting art to launch the company’s WFLD-TV in 1966.

He had a strong grasp of design and typography and loved fine art, especially the work of Calder and Miro, said George Klauba, a friend and graphic artist who worked with him at the newspapers. “Every day during lunchtime, he would go out and go to all the art galleries and see what’s going on.”

Some of Mr. Harris’ work is in the collection of the Illinois State Museum Chicago Gallery at the Thompson Center, where he was renowned for his printmaking and command of both commercial and fine art.

“His work casts an eye toward the human condition with great humor and sympathy,” said Douglas Stapleton, an assistant curator there. “He also had a love for form and color.”

Born in Oak Park to English immigrant parents, Mr. Harris grew up in Chicago, attending Delano grade school and Lane Technical High School. Before he got to Lane, he’d always been put in the back row of class with other “slow learners,” his daughter said. In high school, his teachers recognized he had a hearing impairment, and young Norm was placed in classes that favored lip-reading over American Sign Language.

Mr. Harris worried that he would lead a lonely life because he was born with a cleft lip and palate — for which he later had surgery.

“He told me at one point he never thought he would get married,” his daughter said.

During World War II, he was stationed in Texas, where he worked as an artist for the U.S. Army.

After the war, he went to college on the GI Bill and got a bachelor’s degree from the School of the Art Institute, then went on for a master’s from the Illinois Institute of Technology, where he studied at the Bauhaus-influenced Institute of Design, which boasted teachers such as Buckminster Fuller and Laszlo Moholy-Nagy.

He met his wife, Nelle, when both worked for the Burton Browne ad agency. She’d left her home in Oxford, Wis., at 17 to look for work in Chicago. Their courtship began on her first day at work, when he asked her to lunch.

Mr. Harris was raised in the Jewish faith, while his wife grew up in a Christian home. She asked an official of the Moody Bible Institute to marry them because she had worked for the man as a weekend maid. He refused, saying an interfaith union wouldn’t last. Come Aug. 1, the couple would have been married for 60 years.

They raised their family near Clarendon and Broadway in a house with an old, light-filled ballroom that Mr. Harris turned into his studio. The Harrises enjoyed the theater and Ravinia and discovering hole-in-the wall ethnic restaurants.

The traditions of Christmas intrigued him. He designed Christmas posters with the lit-from-within look of Madonna-and-child Renaissance art and sent them to friends as gifts.

Later in life, he produced paintings of women, especially pregnant women, that evoked the work of Gauguin.

Mr. Harris is also survived by another daughter, Stephanie Harris; a son, Jon Harris; and three grandchildren. Visitation is from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday at Drake & Sons Funeral Home, 5303 N. Western, with burial at Rosehill Cemetery.

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