A Masterpiece in Red, Yellow, Blue, Black and Silver

There is an entire genre of graphic design that, while not entirely ignored by historians, has not received the status it entirely deserves. I’m talking about the “industrial” or “trade” catalog. They are collectible to be sure, but worthy of a major exhibition as well. No, this is not a proposal to whoever is reading this, but it is an acknowledgement of one of the most difficult design challenges – to fit so much into relatively little space and make it accessible, if not beautiful. Ladislav Sutnar was one of the masters – his Catalog Design Progress is currently being reprinted as a facsimile. Paul Rand did a masterful job with his Autocar “Mules of Victory” catalog. These are but two designers. A third is Herbert Matter, whose work for Knoll furniture is now legendary.

This catalog Knoll Index of Designs (1950), illustrated throughout with only black and white photographs and touches of color for accent, is a masterpiece of economy and tactility. Florence Knoll hired Herbert Matter in 1946 to revamp the Knoll public image. The Swiss-born graphic designer directed all visuals from ultra (Italianate) slab serif logo and catalog designs to photography and advertising. Matter shaped all areas of Knoll’s graphic design, including a series of now iconic catalogues. The spread (below with the child) illustrates the Model 198 Hardoy Chair, or Butterfly Chair, designed by Antonio Bonet, Juan Kurchan, and Jorge Ferrari-Hardoy.

Matter said in an interview (published here): “I had to take pictures of the Hardoy chair and on a Saturday morning or afternoon I took my son to the studio with me because I took care of him. And so while I was preparing to shoot the chair I was looking and he started to run around the chair, pretending to be a cowboy and I just let him and took pictures. We probably never said a single wordhe just acted out a certain story he had in his mind — so I took the pictures. At first I thought I would just use the bestthen I couldn’t find them so I used as many as I could get into two pages.”

Matter’s design for Knoll’s identity was on every level consistently innovative, inspiring, contemporary and joyful. A business could not ask for more. History can not ask for greater examples of catalog design.

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