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Herbert Matter at Design Philadelphia

Last night I stopped into one of the many Design Philadelphia events going on this week: a screening of Reto Caduff's new documentary film, The Visual Language of Herbert Matter. The Mitchell Auditorium at the Bossone Center at Drexel University played host to a pair of films: I missed the first, Handmade Nation, as I was sampling the local suds at the White Dog Cafe and the local color at Frank Furness's Anne and Jerome Fisher Fine Arts Library, with a friend at U Penn's landscape architecture school.

herbert matter poster

Caduff's take on Herbert Matter was fascinating, and as I knew next to nothing about the Swiss graphic designer and photographer, most of what was presented was a revelation. Matter's talent for photomontage, design, and film was made manifest through his work doing ads for Knoll, covers for Vogue, and a splashy modern posters promoting the small Swiss town of his birth.

What was equally astounding was just how very well connected Matter—who really hit is professional stride when he moved to New York in the mid-30s—was. He and his wife Mercedes were close chums with Jackson Pollock and Lee Krasner; Swiss photographer Robert Frank sought out Matter when he headed to the US; Matter and artists Alberto Giacometti were pals and Matter made a 20 year study of his work; he worked in the Eames office in the 40s; and even made a short film about his friend Alexander Calder.

herbert matter pontresina
Perhaps the strangest note the film struck over and over again, was how strongly Matter believed that his work spoke for him. And insofar as there were no interviews with Matter, no archival footage of him as a designer or teacher, not even a letter read, the man, who died in 1984, remained decidedly mute.

The talking heads in the film did plenty of chatting for him however, and they ranged from graphic design stars Steven Heller and Jessica Helfand, to Massimo Vignelli as well as Matter's son and grandson.

herbert matter womb chair

A few obtrusive and rather campy bits of animation were the only real drawbacks here: Photos of Matter were tarted up with swirling smoke emanating from his cigarette, or silly moving perspectives on the Swiss alps. They weren't major crimes, but they did give the otherwise estimable bit of documentary film making an amateurish feel.

Last night's screening was the U.S. debut of the film, which heads to New York next. Keep an eye out and do see it if you get the chance.

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