Yale was the first university in the country to establish a graphic design degree program, in 1950. And one of the department’s first professors was Herbert Matter, who arrived in 1952 and taught photography and design here.
Matter is the subject of a new documentary, “The Visual Language of Herbert Matter,” written and directed by Reto Caduff, which explores Matter’s life and work through commentary by artists Robert Frank and Massimo Vignelli, Yale School of Art graphic design lecturer Jessica Helfand ’82 ART ’89 and former photography professor John T. Hill ART ’60. Artists interviewed said the documentary, due for release in late spring, tells the story of a humble and talented designer whose meticulous work had an immediately modern and poignant resonance.
“He was a very important photographer and designer, and so he is difficult to categorize for many people,” said Hill, one of Matter’s first students. “The diversity of what he did and his ideas were very broad. He was very interested in science, and nature and philosophy, and it all figured into his work.”
Matter was born in Engelberg, Switzerland, in 1907 and studied at the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Geneva in his early twenties before moving to France to continue experimenting with graphic design and photography. In 1932 he was expelled from France for lack of proper paperwork and spent a few years in Switzerland before moving to the United States.
He worked in New York for a variety of clients, such as Condé Nast and design firm Knoll, and was hired to teach at Yale in 1952.
Matter distinguished himself from other modernist designers by his understanding of spatial relationships and his incorporation of photography into design, said Sheila L. de Bretteville ART ’64, director of graduate studies in graphic design and another former student of Matter.
“He had a filmic quality to his work,” she said. “Photography often is about looking at the proscenium stage of life, whereas with Matter, most of the things went diagonally into the deepest space, more like the films of that time.”
Though Matter died in 1984, his work is still relevant to audiences today, Helfand said in an e-mail.
“After the war … big companies wanted big, bold symbols to represent their corporate concerns,” she said. “And along came this tall, handsome Swiss man, with gentle manners and an impeccable eye, and he just produced this elegant, memorable work wherever he went. How can that not be relevant to today’s designers and their audiences? He was an inspiration. Still is.”
Hill added that historians credit Matter’s experimental work with light as a major influence on Jackson Pollock, who worked for Matter in his early career and became a close friend of Matter and his wife, Mercedes.
De Bretteville added that Matter was unusually supportive as a teacher.
“He would always just say ‘Very nice,’ so you knew your work was of interest if he didn’t say that and stayed and got into a conversation with you about it [instead],” she said. “Giving green lights rather than red lights was a very effective way to talk to students about their work, and he was unique in that in his time.”
Helfand said Matter’s quiet energy made him unique.
“He was serious, quiet, a man of few words, very sweet and very thoughtful,” she said. “There was no ego: just his concentration, which was steadfast, and as I recall, an infectious energy. You just wanted to stay there and watch him and emulate him in every possible way.”
Today, Matter’s legacy is still present in the classroom and in New Haven.
Matter’s work is shown in “Introduction to Graphic Design” classes and many in New Haven know him because he is the designer of the New Haven Railroad logo, de Bretteville said. Matter’s 1954 logo, with its elongated serif “NH,” became one of the most identifiable symbols in America, according to the film’s Web site.
Matter is also well known for a film he made for the Museum of Modern Art in the late 1940s about the sculptures of his friend Alexander Calder.
Hill helped to publish a major project of Matter’s at the end of his life: a book on the sculptures of Alberto Giacometti, a close friend of Matter’s whose sculpture’s Matter often photographed.
Matter’s first major retrospective was held at the School of Art in 1978.