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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, though 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
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 Condeé 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
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
It is commercial; it is contemplative.
It enhances the quality of life.
It is Art.
Copyright 1984 by The American Institute of Graphic
The distinguished AIGA Medal is awarded to individuals in recognition of their exceptional achievements in the field of design.
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