Herbert 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 Genva, but after two years, the allure of modernism beckoned him to Paris. There, the artist attended the Academie Moderne under the tutelage of Fernand Léger 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 Peignot 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 another design-legend Paul 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 Corbusier, 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 little 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 many of his finest works.
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,” say 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 Pollock, 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 book, a project on which Matter worked for 25 years and that got published posthumously.
The first major retrospective of his work was an exhibition in 1978 at Yale University, School of Art. In the same year the Kunsthaus in Zurich honored Matter with an exhibition of his work from the 1930s. In 1980 Matter received a Guggenheim Fellowship for Photography, and was named Honorary Royal Designer for Industry from the members of the Royal Designers in England in 1982. The American Institute of Graphic Arts (AIGA) awarded Matter its Gold Medal in 1983.