A Matter of Technique: Logo Designs of Herbert Matter

Posted inBranding & Identity Design
Thumbnail for A Matter of Technique: Logo Designs of Herbert Matter

Last month, at Swann Auction Galleries’ “Art, Press & Illustrated Books” sale, I was most intrigued by “Lot 99,” described in the catalog as follows:

DESIGN. MATTER, HERBERT. Trademarks and Symbols. 2 volumes. Original full-color illustrations mounted to card stock. Oblong folio, loose in plain black wrappers and laid into custom burgundy cloth folding box. [California, 1960s] Estimate $3,000 – 4,000 [sold for $2080). Original maquette for an unpublished book by design master Herbert Matter. The images are color collages affixed to the pages and display his aesthetic of pared-down, straightforward designs of geometric purity. An intriguing glance into Matter’s working processes where one can see much of the design sense he employed as a photographer, a poster and graphic designer, and as design and advertising consultant for Knoll Associates, likely his most celebrated position. The vast creative output over the course of his career proves his remarkable scope and influence on 20th-century American visual culture.

Swann_lot 99

I shot close-ups and details of many leaves in the portfolio, which provide a special insight into graphic designers’ pre-computer working techniques.


The logo design work shown here reflects Matter’s training in the disciplines of painting, architecture and typography. His light pencil guidelines are visible, and so is his steady, expert hand cutting, painting, pasting and drawing curves. Designers trained in pre-Macintosh techniques will recognize that the solid colors were painted in India ink or gouache or cut from Color-Aid paper. The tools used were a ruling pen or crow-quill pen, French curve and T-square and triangle, and the elements were assembled using two-coat rubber cement that created a bond that’s lasted 50 years.

A little background: Herbert Matter (1907-1984) trained at the École des Beaux-Arts in Geneva and with Fernand Léger at the Académie Moderne in Paris, where worked with Cassandre, Le Corbusier and Deberny & Peignot. He returned to Zurich and designed posters for the Swiss National Tourist Office that were acclaimed for his pioneering use of photomontage and typography. In 1936 he immigrated to the U.S. and was hired by Alexey Brodovitch to work on Harper’s Bazaar and Vogue. From 1946 to 1966 he was design consultant to Knoll Associates, for which he worked with Charles and Ray Eames. He was also a professor of photography at Yale and a design consultant to the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston and the Guggenheim in New York. He was elected to the New York Art Directors Club Hall of Fame in 1977, received a Guggenheim Fellowship in photography in 1980, and was awarded the AIGA Medal in 1983.

Now we know who the designer was. But who were the clients? The leaves have no captions or explanations. Other than the ‘K’ for Knoll, above, that was a mystery. Thanks to a recommendation from Steven Heller, I contacted the London-based writer and historian Kerry William Purcell, author of many books on design and photography—and author of an unpublished 50,000-word manuscript on Matter—who kindly provided the following explanations:

Matter_4 W's

Client: WESTINGHOUSE. This, from Purcell’s manuscript: “The following year, 1960, Matter’s flair for exhibition design was called upon on two occasions. The first was when he was commissioned by Eliot Noyes, the onetime head of Industrial design at MoMA and associate of Charles Eames, to design a trade show for the electrical supplier Westinghouse. Westinghouse had recently engaged in a massive overall of the ’public faces’ of the corporation. At Noyes’s suggestion, this redesign was entrusted to Paul Rand. Rand’s response was his now-iconic ’W’ that symbolized the companies business in a distinct and striking manner [see Rand’s logo and I.D. manual here]. Matter incorporated Rand’s work into exhibition designs that were sympathetic to its overall aims. Alongside the Rand logo, Matter’s Westinghouse display also included some of his own attempts at a new ‘W’ logo. In an approach similar to Rand’s, Matter’s work aspires to symbolize the idea of electrical power. One is made up of four lightening bolts emanating from a ‘W’ placed at the center of a tilted square, while another was crafted in the style of an electrical pulse with the upward strokes of the ‘W‘ representing the burst of energy.”


Client: CUMMINS ENGINE CORP. Matter was commissioned by Cummins to devise a range of symbols and construct a portable exhibit for the 1960 International Oil Show in Tulsa, OK.

Matter T4

Client: TECHNOLOGY SQUARE, a real estate development in Cambridge, MA.




Client: UNKNOWN. Ideas? A road construction company? L.A. freeways? Mr. Purcell suggests referring to Matter’s Symbols Signs Logos Trademarks (New York: 1977), a rare, out-of print brochure. He writes, “It sounds like the folio that was auctioned may have contained many designs that were featured in that publication (Knoll, Cummins, New Haven Railroad, Boston and Maines). It may also connect to a winter 1961-’62 one-man show of Matter’s work at the then-newly opened AIGA Third Avenue exhibition space. This exhibition consisted of two sections, photography and graphic design. It included his Arts & Architecture covers, logo designs and signs. The folio could contain that exhibition material.”

Much more information about Herbert Matter, including a useful illustra
ted timeline, is available on his official site, herbertmatter.org.



From Jim Krause, the author of the wildly popular “Index” series, comes a new take on logo books. Recognizing the challenge a logo presents for a designer, The Logo Brainstorm Book goes far beyond the typical logo swipe file. It will help you save time and produce incredible results.