One of the first essays I wrote on the history of graphic design was a tribute to Herbert Matter when awarded the AIGA Medal in 1983. He was quite ill at the time, I knew very little about him, and so had to piece together information from various sources. Paul Rand was a huge help in bringing me up to speed. I was struck by Matter’s virtuosity, especially in the experimental photographic realm. And was most impressed with his work for PLUS, a short-lived progressive architecture magazine, which he designed in 1938 (yet looks as though it could have been published today).
PLUS: Orientations of Contemporary Architecture, planned to publish six times a year by Architectural Forum, lasted only a few issues from 1938 to 1939. One of its editors was Wallace K. Harrison, who in 1939 was responsible for the New York World’s Fair centerpiece, the Trylon and Perisphere, and the Laguardia Airport “ice cream cone” air traffic control tower. The others were William Lescaze, William Muschenheim, Stamo Papadaki, and James Johnson Sweeney.
This was my essay on Matter’s life at the time of his death in 1983:
The growing archive of modern graphic design includes works by formidable practitioners who influenced styles, epitomized epochs and left indelible marks on common perception. Such imagery as Herbert Bayer’s Bauhaus magazine cover, E. McKnight Kauffer’s poster for the Daily Herald and Alexander Rodchenko’s constructivist paperback covers are signposts of innovation. Due to their functional nature, however, these and other works are usually viewed as artifacts. Many should be seen and appreciated as art.
One series of examples: Herbert Matter’s emblematic posters for the Swiss Tourist Office (1935–36) fit squarely into both categories. While the posters successfully communicate their immediate messages through a skillful application of photomontage, on a more lasting note, they transcend what is momentary through the integration of strong, personal expression. This expression found in all significant design is essential to Matter’s work.
Herbert Matter’s prodigious contribution to the development of photography and design, his lifelong prolificacy and his teaching make it appropriate that he has been named the 1983 Medalist of The American Institute of Graphic Arts (awarded to him before he died this past May).
Most of us are aware of Matter’s work, thought less familiar with the photographer/designer himself. This lack of notoriety is not surprising, since Matter was exceedingly modest and unassuming. “The absence of pomposity was characteristic of this guy,” says Paul Rand, a friend for four decades. While his creative life was devoted to narrowing the gap between so-called fine and applied arts, the deed is often best stated through works rather than through speech.
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 Genf, but after two years, the allure of modernism beckoned him to Paris. There, the artist attended the Academie Moderne under the tutelage of Fernand Leger 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 Piegnot 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 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 Corbu, 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 no 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 Condé Nast offices, where he produced covers and inside spreads for Vogue.
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,” says 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 Pollack, 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, as yet unpublished book, a project on which Matter worked for 25 years. In 1978, he had received a Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship for photography in 1980. The Marlborough Gallery continues to handle Matter’s photographic work.
In many ways and for many years, Matter’s friends and students have praised his aims and motives, his work and career, but it was Paul Rand, in his introductory “Poem” for a 1977 Yale exhibition catalogue, who best describes the AIGA Medalist—with the same clarity, brevity and strength as a Matter poster:
Herbert Matter is a magician.
To satisfy the needs of industry, that’s what you have to be.
Industry is a tough taskmaster.
Art is tougher.
Industry plus Art, almost impossible.
Some artists have done the impossible.
Herbert Matter, for example.
His work of ’32 could have been done in ’72 or even ’82.
It has that timeless, unerring quality one recognizes instinctively.
It speaks to all tongues, with one tongue.
It is uncomplicated, to the point, familiar, and yet unexpected.
Something brought to light, an image, a surprise, an analogy.
It is believable, as it is unbelievable.
It always has an idea, the one you almost thought of.
It may be formal or anecdotal, full of sentiment, but not sentimental.
It is commercial; it is contemplative.
It enhances the quality of life.
It is Art.
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