Recap: The Visual Language of Herbert Matter

by Matt Budelman

“It’s not what you look at that matters, It’s what you see.”

photo: Ben Gebo

After arriving at swissnex Boston | Consulate of Switzerland, for the screening of The Visual Language of Herbert Matter, I was pleasantly greeted by welcoming hosts and a wonderful crowd of people mingling, sipping drinks, and enjoying finger food—a stark contrast to the pouring rain outside. There seemed to be a nice balance of old and young, with familiar faces as well as some new ones. I made my way to a seat and shortly thereafter the event began—first a few announcements, and then a brief introduction to the film by its creator, Reto Caduff.

The title sequence was enticing, well-produced, and served as a good lead-in to the film’s opening—the director speaking over grand views of the Swiss mountains. I loved the analogy: comparing the expansive mountains to what may have inspired Herbert Matter’s work.

The film was a carefully crafted blend of information and entertainment that seemed to always keep pace with one’s attention. As a designer, I was happy that the work was displayed long enough to digest, but not so long that it would bore non-designers. The movie progresses as a chronological walk-through, following threads of Matter’s life, work, friends, and family, along with major historical milestones in art and culture. There were brief moments of laughter, and sad ones as well, but what impressed me the most was the breadth of his work, as well as the large scope of work that was researched and presented in the film.

Prior to this screening, I had only heard of Herbert Matter through design history books, in a passing note about a poster or photogram. Now, I can easily say he is one of my favorite designers from that generation. A Google search for “Herbert Matter” turns up relatively little compared to the enormous amount of work in the film. But it’s not the amount of work that impressed me. It was the way in which Matter was an ambassador between art, photography, and graphic design.

Herbert Matter was successful in what seemed like every creative field, and as Jessica Helfand noted in the film: “For someone like Herbert Matter, to have commercial success not just in one but in several professions is truly unique to this day.” He was experimenting with photography using a graphic designer’s eye. He was making films with Alexander Calder and Philip Glass. He assisted under A.M. Cassandre and Le Corbusier. He was friends with Jackson Pollock and Alberto Giacometti. He designed magazine covers for Alexey Brodovitch and Alexander Liberman. He photographed and designed catalogues for Charles and Ray Eames. He created a visual language for Knoll and the New Haven Railroad. He designed and created an installation for the 1939 World’s Fair. He taught at Yale alongside Paul Rand. As the film kept going, I was continually amazed by how much work he had done with such a wide range of people.

Afterward, we were able to pick the brain of Reto Caduff about the process of making the film, meeting all of the people interviewed, and the many hours of working in design archives. It was great to have someone so intimately involved with the film there to give us some background or to add a short story that didn’t make it into the film.

For me, this is a movie I will watch over and over, and enjoy every time.

Many thanks are in order to swissnex Boston | Consulate of Switzerland, Reto Caduff, and AIGA Boston for presenting the film.

Matt Budelman is a graphic designer and serves on the board of AIGA Boston.

By AIGA Boston
Published June 2, 2011