Herbert Matter

1983 AIGA Medal
1907, Engelberg

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 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 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 1978 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.

Copyright 1984 by The American Institute of Graphic Arts.

Additional Resources


Alexander. “Paula Scher, Herbert Matter & Swatch: Was it Plagiarism or Parody?Retinart. n.d. Web. Tues. 16 Aug. 2016.

“An A-Z of Typographers.” Baseline 40 (2003): 49–52. ProQuest. Web. 10 Aug. 2016.

Bierut, Michael. “The Man Who Saved Jackson Pollock.” Design Observer. Observer Omnimedia LLC. 6 June 2005. Web. 16 Aug. 2016.

Brenson, Michael. “Herbert Matter, 77, A Graphic Designer and Photographer.” The New York Times. The New York Times Company, 9 May 1984. Web. 16 Aug. 2016.

Britt, Aaron. “Printed Matter.” Dwell 11.6 (2011): 72–78. ProQuest. Web. 10 Aug. 2016.

Brower, Steven. “Paula Scher’s ‘Copycat’ 1984 Swatch Poster.” 4 Dec. 2014. AIGA Eye on Design. AIGA. Web. 16 Aug. 2016. 

Burer, Catherine. “The Posters at the Zurich Design Museum.” Affiche 5 (1993): 24–33. ProQuest. Web. 10 Aug. 2016.

Daines, Mike. Baseline 49. Bradbourne Publishing, 2006. Print.

Davies, Jim. “The Art of Matter.” Direction (1991): 41. ProQuest. Web. 10 Aug. 2016.

Davis, Susan E. “Herbert Matter: The Soul of the Master.” Step-by-Step Graphics 8.4 (1992): 114,115, 118–122. ProQuest. Web. 10 Aug. 2016.

Fernandez, Chantal. “Designer’s Life and Works Explored.” 23 Feb. 2010. Yale Daily News. YaleDailyNews.com. Web. 16 Aug. 2016. 

Friedman, Mildred, and Lorraine Wild. “Europeans in America: The Impact of Modernism on American Graphic Design.” Issue 4 (1990): 18–19. ProQuest. Web. 10 Aug. 2016.

Guggenheim Staff. “Herbert Matter.” Guggenheim. The Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation. 15 Jun. 2015. Web. 16 Aug. 2016.

Head, Jeffrey. “A Matter of Design.” Modernism Magazine 6.1 (2003): 58–67. ProQuest. Web. 10 Aug. 2016.

Head, Jeffrey. “History of Writing: Non-Alphabetic Systems of Writing.” Baseline 41 (2003): 33–36. ProQuest. Web. 10 Aug. 2016.

Helfand, Jessica. “All Things Matter.” Design Observer. Observer Omnimedia LLC. 27 Oct. 2009. Web. 16 Aug. 2016. 

Helfand, Jessica. “Annals of Small Town Life: The Logo Stops Here.” Design Observer. Observer Omnimedia LLC. 4 Sept. 2006. Web. 16 Aug. 2016. 

Heller, Steven. “The Art of Designer Biographies: An Interview Kerry William Purcell.” 26 Dec. 2006. AIGA. AIGA. Web. 16 Aug. 2016.

Heller, Steven. “Glenn Horowitz on the Stanford University’s Acquisition of the Herbert Matter Archive.” Print 59.1 (2005): 40–42. ProQuest. Web. 10 Aug. 2016. 

Heller, Steven. “Reto Caduff on His Documentary Biopic of Herbert Matter.” Print 64.3 (2010): 28–29. Print.

Herbert Matter.” ADC Hall of Fame, Awards. ADC, 1976. Web. 16 Aug. 2016.

Herbert Matter.” Artnet. Artnet Worldwide Corporation. n.d. Web. 16 Aug. 2016.

Herbert Matter.” Design is History. Design is History. n.d. Web. 16 Aug. 2016.

Herbert Matter.” Famous Graphic Designers. FamousGraphicDesigners.org. Web. 16 Aug. 2016.

Herbert Matter.” Gitterman Gallery. New York, New York. Web. 16 Aug. 2016.

Hillier, DC. “Herbert Matter: Shaping a New Design Vocabulary.” MCM Daily. DC HIller. 17 Sept. 2015. Web. 16 Aug. 2016.

Hofmann, Armin. “Herbert Matter: A Retrospective.” Graphis 36.211. Ed. Walter Herdeg. (1981): 502–517. International Advertising & Design DataBase. Web. 6 Nov. 2016.

Kenner, Jennifer. “Matter of Style.” Blog. Letterology. Blogger. 21 June 2013. Web. 16 Aug. 2016. 

Levine, David. “Herbert Matter Brochure: Die Schweiz im Schnee, 1936 for the Swiss Tourist Office.” Blog. 17 April 2013. Paper Graphic Design from the 1920s to the 1970s: Ephemeron. Web. 16 Aug. 2016.

Masheck, Joseph. “[rezension Von:] Matter, Herbert; Matter, Mercedes: Alberto Giacometti. - New York, 1987.” Art in America. (1988): 27–29. Print.

Poynor, Rick. “Optic Nerve: Canon Fodder.” Print 56.3 (2002): 38–181. ProQuest. Web. 10 Aug. 2016.

Purcell, Kerry William. “The Crafty Linotyper.” Eye 14.55 (2005): 45–48. ProQuest. Web. 10 Aug. 2016.

Purcell, Kerry William. “Herbert Matter—the Art of Photo-Graphics.” Baseline 49 (2006): 29–36. ProQuest. Web. 10 Aug. 2016.

Rössler, Patrick. “90 Jahre Gebrauchsgraphik Modernität Vs. Avantgarde II: Wo Bleibt Das Bauhaus?/90 Years of Gebrauchsgraphik Modernity Vs. Avante-Garde II: What about the Bauhaus?” Novum 10 (2014): 74–79. ProQuest. Web. 10 Aug. 2016.

Shapiro, Ellen. “A Matter of Technique: Logo Designs of Herbert Matter.” Print. F+W. 1 Jan. 2016. Web. 16 Aug. 2016.

Shelly, Katie. “Two Matters of Importance.” Cooper Hewitt. Smithsonian Design Museum. 11 May 2011. Web. 16 Aug. 2016.

Sinclair, Mark. “Knoll and Herbert Matter.” Creative Review. Centaur Communications Ltd. 13 Sept. 2012. Web. 16 Aug. 2016. 

Spencer, Neil. “The Visual Language Of Herbert Matter.” 24 June 2011. Visual News. Visual News. Web. 16 Aug. 2016.

Ulloa, Alexander. “The Visual Language of Herbert Matter (2010).” Art of the Title. Art of the Title LLC. 26 July 2010. Web. 16 Aug. 2016. 

Vanko, Lauren. Herbert Matter: The Years in Paris and Zurich 1928–1936. , 1986. Print.


20th Century Decorative Arts: Including Prints & Vintage Posters. Los Angeles: Butterfields, 2002. Print.

American Institute of Graphic Arts. AIGA Graphic Design USA: 5: The Annual of the American Institute of Graphic Arts. New York: Watson-Guptill, 1984. Print.

Bierut, Michael. Seventy-Nine Short Essays on Design. Princeton Architectural Press. 2007. Web. Tues. 16 Aug. 2016. 

Clifford, John. Graphic Icons: Visionaries Who Shaped Modern Graphic Design. Peachpit Press, 2014. Print.

Dufner, Georg, and Herbert Matter. Herbert Matter: [engelberg - Amerika, 1907–1984]. Engelberg: Ed. Engelberger Dokumente, 1985. Print.

Heller, Steven, and Georgette Ballance. Graphic Design History. New York: Allworth Press, 2001. Print.

Hollis, Richard. Swiss Graphic Design: The Origins and Growth of an International Style, 1920–1965. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006. Print.

Lutz, Brian. Knoll: A Modernist Universe. New York: Rizzoli, 2010. Print.

Matter, Herbert. Herbert Matter. , 1943. Print.

Matter, Herbert, Andrew Forge, and Max Bill. Herbert Matter: 13 Photographs. Hamden, Conn: Ives-Sillman, 1970. Print.

Matter, Herbert, Jeffrey Head, and John T. Hill. Herbert Matter: Modernist Photography and Graphic Design. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Libraries, 2005. Print.

Modernism101.com. Chests, Cabinets, Beds. Web. Tues. 16 Aug. 2016. 

Reeve, Mark S, and Herbert Matter. Herbert Matter: Translating the Modernist Soul. Baltimore, MD: Company Time Graphics, 1994. Print.

Rower, A S. C, Jed Perl, and Herbert Matter. Calder by Matter: Herbert Matter Photographs of Alexander Calder and His Work. , 2014. Print.

Smith, Elizabeth A. T. Blueprints for Modern Living: History and Legacy of the Case Study Houses. MOCA, The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, 1989. Print.

Exhibitions and events

Department of Circulating Exhibitions Records, Series II. Exhibitions 1931–1990. Four American Graphic Designers. February 10–March 4, 1954. The Museum of Modern Art Archives, New York. Archival material.

Department of Circulating Exhibitions Records, Series II. Exhibitions 1931-1990 II.1.92.8 Polio Posters. The Museum of Modern Art Archives, New York.

The Graphic Designs of Herbert Matter, July 3–December 10. 1991. MoMA. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Web. 16 Aug. 2016.

The Graphic Designs of Herbert Matter: Checklist. New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1991. Print.

Herbert Matter: A Retrospective. 16 Jan. through 3 Feb. 1978. New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University. School of Art. A+A Gallery. Print.

Matter, Herbert. Herbert Matter: Selected Photographs 1929–1979 : 6–29 Dec. 1979. New York: Marlborough Gallery. Print.

Matter, Herbert, and Louis Finkelstein. Herbert Matter: An Exhibition Presented by the American Institute of Graphic Arts on the Occasion of the Opening of the New Galleries at 1059 Third Avenue, New York, 18 Dec. 1961–19 Jan. 1962. New York: American Institute of Graphic Arts, 1962. Print.

Websites and collections

AIGA Design Archives. AIGA, n.d. Web. 16 Aug. 2016.

Der Sturm [photo Herbert Matter]. Conzett + Huber, 1943. Internet resource.

The Graphic Designs of Herbert Matter: Archives Pamphlet File : Miscellaneous Uncataloged Material. Museum of Modern Art, New York. 1991. Archival material.

Herbert Matter.” Cooper Hewitt. Smithsonian Design Museum. n.d. Web. 16 Aug. 2016.

Herbert Matter. Herbert Matter, n.d. Web. 16 Aug. 2016.

Herbert Matter: Modernist Photography and Graphic Design, A Stanford University Special Collections Exhibition.” Stanford University Libraries. Stanford University. Web. 16 Aug. 2016.

Herbert Matter: Modernist Photography and Graphic Design. Special Collections & University Archive. Stanford University Libraries. Stanford University. Web. 16 Aug. 2016.

Knoll Designer Bios: Herbert Matter.” Knoll. Knoll, Inc. Web. 16 Aug. 2016. 

Matter, Herbert. [Herbert Matter: Artist File]. Detroit Institute of Arts Research Library & Archives. Detroit. n.d.. Archival material.

Matter, Herbert. Herbert Matter: Artist File. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. 1930.

Matter, Herbert. Herbert Matter Papers. Stanford University Libraries. 1937. Archival material.

Herbert Matter.” The Museum of Modern Art. New York. Web. 16 Aug. 2016. 

Matter, Herbert. R. Buckminster Fuller Materials from Herbert Matter. Stanford University Libraries. 1960. Archival material.

Matter, Herbert. Yale Collection of Herbert Matter. Yale University Library. New Haven, Conn. 1928. Archival material.

Matter, Herbert, and Mercedes Matter. Herbert Matter Collection Related to His Design of the Book Alberto Giacometti. Stanford University Libraries. 1965. Archival material.

Online Archive of California. “Guide to the Herbert Matter Papers.” Stanford University Manuscript Division. California Digital Library. 2005. Web. 16 Aug. 2016.

Rossman, Jae. “Guide to the Yale Collection of Herbert Matter.” Yale University Library. Dec. 2001. Web. 16 Aug. 2016.

Audio and video

Caduff, Reto, Laurin Merz, and Greg Manning. The Visual Language of Herbert Matter. Zurich, Switzerland: PiXiU Films GMBH, 2011. DVD. Web. 16 Aug. 2016.

Calder Foundation. Sculpture and Constructions, 1944 by Herbert Matter. Produced by the Museum of Modern Art, New York. 16mm, color, sound (English). Written and narrated by Agnes Rindge Claflin; cinematography by Herbert Matter; filmed and recorded by Hartley Productions. Web. 16 Aug. 2016.

Calder Foundation. Works of Calder, 1950 by Herbert Matter. Produced by New World Film Productions for the Museum of Modern Art, New York. Web. 16 Aug. 2016.

Matter, Herbert. Matter Teaser. 27 Nov. 2009. Vimeo. Web. 16 Aug. 2016.

Matter, Herbert. NHRR logo development. 16 Oct. 2009. Vimeo. Web. 16 Aug. 2016.

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