Two Matters of Importance

Engelberg, Trübsee/Switzerland, 1936. Herbert Matter (Swiss, 1907 – 1984). Offset lithograph on white wove paper, 40 1/8 × 25 1/16 in. (1019 × 637 mm). Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum, Museum purchase from General Acquisitions Endowment Fund, 2006-15-1

Two articles in the May issue of Dwell magazine have special resonance for Cooper-Hewitt’s followers. The first, “Printed Matter” by Aaron Britt, concerns the life and work of the Swiss-born graphic designer Herbert Matter; the second, “20th-Century Fox” by Leslie Williamson, discusses the collaboration of Eero Saarinen, Alexander Girard, and Dan Kiley on the seminal J. Irwin Miller house in Columbus, IN.

Collage: Clothespins, 1957–59. Alexander Hayden Girard (American, 1907–1993) for Herman Miller Furniture Company. Colored tissue paper attached to white tracing paper, 24 3/4 × 18 in. (629 × 457 mm). Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum, Gift of Alexander H. Girard, 1969-165-270

Herbert Matter (1907-1984) was one of the early pioneers in the application of photography to graphic design. Following the examples of modernist designers Aleksandr Rodchenko, El Lissitzky, László Maholy-Nagy, and John Heartfield, Matter manipulated photographic images and text to create compelling graphic advertisements. In 2006, Cooper-Hewitt acquired one of his celebrated series of four posters for the Swiss National Tourist Office, Engelberg, Trübsee, Switzerland. This work illustrates Matter’s innovative juxtapositions of images of contrasting scale, diagonally placed text, flatness and depth, texture and color. Designers over the years have frequently used the human hand as a graphic motif, but the woolly-textured, gloved hand lying on the surface plane, like one of Picasso’s newspapers in a Cubist painting, is assertive and memorable. Over the course of his career, Matter worked for the Eames office, Le Corbusier, Knoll International, and Yale University, where he taught graphic design and photography. Because of his enormous achievements in the course of his fifty-year career, Cooper-Hewitt will be looking to acquire additional examples of his graphic design work.

Collage: Quatrefoil, Series #625-630, 1954. Alexander Hayden Girard, (American, 1907 – 1993) for Herman Miller Furniture Company. Colored tissue, graphite on white tracing paper, 17 1/2 × 8 5/8 in. (445 × 219 mm). Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum, Gift of Alexander H. Girard, 1969-165-249

Herbert Matter’s career overlapped that of Alexander Girard (1907-1993), although they approached design from different viewpoints. Matter’s design tends to be visually stringent and sleek, while Girard’s is fanciful and fun. Girard’s child-like playfulness is particularly evident in his textile designs, which are amply represented in the more than 1500 objects in Cooper-Hewitt’s collection. Rather than creating in the traditional method of brush and gouache, Girard cut variously colored tissues into shapes that he pasted to backing paper. With the pattern Clothespins, alternating and overlapping arch-shaped pieces of lavender, blue, purple and red colored tissue produce an all over stripped pattern. Another design represented in the collection, Quatrafoil, was used in the Irwin Miller house in the children’s bedrooms in different colorways. Girard’s textiles have a special attraction for contemporary consumers who have suffered from color deprivation during the last forty years.