Herbert Matter

Herbert Matter

“THE VISUAL LANGUAGE OF HERBERT MATTER” is a revealing look at the fascinating life story of the highly influential mid-century modern design master. Known as a quintessential designer’s designer, Swiss born Herbert Matter is largely credited with expanding the use of photography as a design tool and bringing the semantics of fine art into the realm of applied arts.

Inspired by Russian constructivists and taught by artists such as Fernand Léger, Le Corbusier, and A.M.Cassandre in Paris in the late 20s, Matter designed a series of cutting-edge Swiss travel posters that won international acclaim for the pioneering use of photo-montage combined with type.

Always striking a balance between fine art projects and commercial work, the taciturn designer found his own unique language, which resulted in the creation of such iconic works as the corporate identity for Knoll Associates and the New Haven Railroad.

When Herbert Matter got the job to design a new logo for the New Haven Railroad he literally went through hundreds of sketches before arriving at the final logo

With his photography he was adept in documenting the early furniture of Charles and Ray Eames and creating covers for Vogue and Arts & Architecture as well as documenting his contemporaries Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning or Alberto Giacometti.

As a filmmaker, he directed a critically acclaimed film “Works of Calder” about his good friend Alexander Calder, with music composed by John Cage. Later in life he was a professor for photography and graphic design among Paul Rand and Josef Albers at Yale University.

In today’s commercialized and oversaturated world, the documentary directed by Reto Caduff (“Charlie Haden – Rambling Boy”, “A Crude Awakening”) lets luminaries such as Robert Frank, Massimo Vignelli, Alvin Eisenmann, Steven Heller, Elaine Lustig Cohen and others explain why Matter still matters.

Through never-before-seen footage, personal photography and stunning graphic design work, the film explores the social and cultural impact of his personal visual langauge that influenced a whole generation of designer and artists.

Herbert Matter was a man who seemingly fit many lives into one by excelling in the creative disciplines of design, photography and film. The documentary The Visual Language of Herbert Matter profiles his extraordinary life and seminal work.


With the help of historical footage, vintage photographs, never-before-seen film excerpts (some shot by Matter himself) and a broad overwiew of his extensive body of work, the feature length documentary helps in bringing the picture of an almost forgotten creative genius back into focus.

Interwoven with interviews from a who’s who list of legendary artists, designer and photographers, the film sheds light on a remarkable career and its impact on the evolving language of design during the short 20th century both in the USA and Europe.

For the first time in an encompassing and comprehensive way, the film touches on the innovative expressions of his free experimental work, his fashion and advertising photography and his portraiture. His amazing talent of combining bold combinations of words, images and space is shown in his iconic Swiss travel posters, pavilion designs for the New York World’s Fair 1939, photographs for Condé Nast publications; corporate image programs for Knoll furniture, the New Haven Railroad, exhibition- and numerous catalog designs for the Museum of Modern Art and the Guggenheim Museum; covers for the legendary Arts & Architecture magazine and his lesser known work in film, the prime example being a film on the works of Alexander Calder.

The documentary is produced by independent Swiss production company PiXiU films, directed by award-winning filmmaker Reto Caduff and presented with a unique approach of visual storytelling: beginning with Matter’s childhood in the Swiss alps, to his training in Paris with legends such as A.M. Cassandre, Fernand Léger, and Le Corbusier, leading back to Zurich and the groundbreaking photomontage in his legendary Swiss travel posters – followed by his subsequent move to the United States.

There, the story touches on his hiring by Alexey Brodovitch, Matter’s turbulent marriage with Mercedes Carles and his friendship with modernist thinkers and artists such as Jackson Pollock, Willem deKooning, Robert Frank, Charles and Ray Eames, R. Buckminster Fuller or Alexander Calder as well as his over twenty years of devotion on producing an interpretative monograph of the works of Alberto Giacometti.


Herbert Matter was born in 1907 in Engelberg, a Swiss mountain village, where exposure to the treasure of one of the two finest medieval graphic art collections in Europe was unavoidable. In 1925, he attended the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Genva, but after two years, the allure of modernism beckoned him to Paris. There, the artist attended the Academie Moderne under the tutelage of Fernand Léger and Amédée Ozenfant. While the former became a close lifelong friend, both encouraged Matter to expand his artistic horizons.

In Europe during the late Twenties and early Thirties, the creative scope of graphic design was boundless. Journalistic, imaginative and manipulative photography were revolutionary influences and Matter, long-enamored with the camera, began to experiment with the Rollei as both a design tool and an expressive form—a relationship that never ended. Inspired by the work of El Lissitzky and Man Ray, Matter was intrigued by photograms, as well as the magic of collage and montage – both were favored modes. In 1929, his entry into graphic design was completed when he was hired as a designer and photographer for the legendary Deberny and Peignot concern. There he learned the nuances of fine typography, while he assisted A.M. Cassandre and Le Corbusier.

In 1932, abruptly expelled from France for not having the proper papers, he returned from Switzerland to follow his own destiny.”Herbert’s background is fascinating and enviable,” says another design-legend Paul Rand. “He was surrounded by good graphics and learned from the best.” Therefore, it is no wonder that the famed posters designed for the Swiss Tourist Office soon after his return had the beauty and intensity of Cassandre and the geometric perfection of Corbusier, wed to a very distinctive personal vision.

In 1936, Matter was offered roundtrip passage to the United States as payment for his work with a Swiss ballet troupe. He spoke little English, yet traveled across the United States. When the tour was over, he decided to remain in New York. At the urging of a friend who worked at the Museum of Modern Art, Matter went to see Alexey Brodovitch, who had been collecting the Swiss travel posters (two of which were hanging on Brodovitch’s studio wall). Matter soon began taking photographs for Harper’s Bazaar and Saks Fifth Avenue. Later, he affiliated himself with a photographic studio, “Studio Associates,” located near the Condeé Nast offices, where he produced many of his finest works.

During World War II, Matter made striking posters for Container Corporation of America. In 1944, he became the design consultant at Knoll, molding its graphic identity for over 12 years. As Alvin Eisenman, head of the Design Department at Yale and long-time friend, points out: “Herbert had a strong feeling for minute details and this was exemplified by the distinguished typography he did for the Knoll catalogues.”

In 1952, he was asked by Eisenman to join the Yale faculty as professor of photography and graphic design. “He was a marvelous teacher,” say Eisenman. “His roster of students included some of the most important names in the field today.” At Yale, he tried his hand at architecture, designing studio space in buildings designed by Louis Kahn and Paul Rudolf. “He was good at everything he tried to do,” continues Eisenman. In 1954, he was commissioned to create the corporate identity for the New Haven Railroad. The ubiquitous “NH” logo, with its elongated serifs, was one of the most identifiable symbols in America. Affinity for modern, avant-garde and nonobjective art was always evident, not only in Matter’s own work, but in his closest friendships.

In 1944, he was asked by the Museum of Modern Art to direct a movie on the sculpture of his intimate friend and neighbor, Alexander Calder. It was his first cinematic attempt, yet because of the sympathetic and deep understanding that only one kindred artist can have for another, the completed film was one of the finest in its genre. From 1958 to 1968, he was the design consultant for the Guggenheim Museum, applying his elegant typographic style to its posters and catalogues many of which are still in print. He worked in Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney’s former studio in McDougal Alley with his wife, Mercedes Matter, who founded the famed Studio School just around the corner. During the late Fifties and early Sixties, he was an intimate participant in the New York art scene, counting Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, Franz Kline and Philip Guston as friends and confidants. In 1960, he started photographing the sculpture of Alberto Giacometti, another spiritual intimate, for a comprehensive book, a project on which Matter worked for 25 years and that got published posthumously.

The first major retrospective of his work was an exhibition in 1978 at Yale University, School of Art. In the same year the Kunsthaus in Zurich honored Matter with an exhibition of his work from the 1930s. In 1980 Matter received a Guggenheim Fellowship for Photography, and was named Honorary Royal Designer for Industry from the members of the Royal Designers in England in 1982. The American Institute of Graphic Arts (AIGA) awarded Matter its Gold Medal in 1983.

(from a text by Steven Heller and David R. Brown – used with permission.)

Timeline1907 Born April 25, in Engelberg, Switzerland.

1925-1927 Studied painting at the Ecole des Beaux Arts, Geneva.

1928-1929 Studied with Fernand Léger and Amédée Ozenfant at Académie Moderne, Paris.

1929-1932 Worked with A.M. Cassandre on poster design and Le Corbusier on architecture and displays for exhibits in Paris.

1930 Designed family-owned Tea Room in Engelberg, inspired by the Bauhaus.

1932-1935 Sent back to Zurich by french immigration for lack of proper papers. Worked as photographer and designer on brochures and posters for the Swiss Tourist Office using the new photomontage technique.

1935 Traveled to the United States in December photographed the US tour of dance troupe Trudi Schoop. Decided to stay in New York City.

1936-1938 Worked as freelance photographer at Harper’s Bazaar for art director Alexey Brodovitch.

1939 Appointed designer for the Swiss National Pavilion in collaboration with Swiss architect William Lescaze, for the 1939 World’s Fair in New York.

1941 Marriage to Mercedes Carles. Started working on posters and advertisements for the Container Corporation of America (CCA).

1942 Son Alexander Matter born.

1943 First one-man exhibition of photography, Pierre Matisse Gallery, NY

1943-1946 Worked with Charles and Ray Eames in Venice, California.

Designed covers and layouts for John Entenza’s arts & architecture magazine.

1946 Returned to New York. Began twenty-year relationship with furniture company Knoll Associates as design- and advertising consultant.

1946-1957 Worked as staff photographer for Condé Nast Publications.

1948 Designed In and Out of Focus, photography exhibition for the Museum of Modern Art, New York. Matter’s work included in the show.

1949-1950 Directed, filmed and edited The Works of Calder for the Museum of Modern Art, the first color film about Alexander Calder. Featuring Calder, Alex Matter and a film-score composed by John Cage.

1950-1955 Collaborated, filmed and edited black and white dance films The Spirit Moves and Dancing with Mura Dehn.

1951-1960 Appointed visiting critic in photography, Yale University, School of Art and Architecture, New Haven, CT by Alvin Eisenman.

1952-1955 Appointed design consultant to the New Haven Railroad (NHRR). Created comprehensive design program and corporate identity.

1953-1968 Appointed design consultant to the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York. Responsible for publications and signage.

1955 Created symbol and styling design program for the Boston and Maine Railroad.

Completed design for the photo mural History of Writing for Marcel Breuer designed public library, Grosse Pointe, MI.

Honored by membership in the prestigious Alliance Graphique Internationale (AGI), Zürich/Switzerland.

1958 Designed mural for the fifth floor reception of the Ludwig Mies van der Rohe designed Seagram building in New York.

1960-1979 Developed photographic essay on the works of Alberto Giacometti.

1961-1967 Design consultant to the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, TX.

1961-1976 Appointed Professor of Graphic Design, Yale University, School of Art and Architecture,

1962 Comprehensive exhibition of Matter’s photography and graphic design work at the American Institute of Graphic Arts (AIGA), NY.

1968 Produced and directed ten 30 minute educational films titled the World Games on R. Buckminster Fuller.

1976 Appointed Professor Emeritus of Graphic Design and Photography, Yale University, School of Art and Architecture.

1977 Elected to Art Director’s Club of New York, Hall of Fame.

1978 Exhibition, Herbert Matter – a retrospective, Yale University, Art and Architecture gallery.

Exhibition of photography, Kunsthaus Zürich, Switzerland.

1982 Elected Royal Designer to Industry, by Royal Society of Designers to Industry, London, England.

1983 Received American Institute of Graphic Arts (AIGA) Gold Medal for Life Achievement.

1984 Died of cancer on May 8., Southampton, Long Island, NY.

1986 Publication of book Alberto Giacometti based on Matter’s extensive specifications and design.

1988 Exhibition of Matter’s early European work, Kunsthaus Zürich, Switzerland. Release of book Sehformen der Zeit on the same topic.

1991 Exhibition The Graphic Design of Herbert Matter, Museum of Modern Art, NY

2001 Mercedes Matter died, December 4., Easthampton, Long Island, NY

2005 Exhibition Herbert Matter, Modernist Photography and Graphic Design at Stanford Uiversity Libraries, CA.

2007 Pollock Matters, Exhibition at McMullen Museum of Art Boston College, MA.

2010 Release of documentary film “The Visual Language of Herbert Matter”


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