“The Eskimo in the Mojave Desert”: Herbert Matter, a Designer Across Scenes and Genres

“The Eskimo in the Mojave Desert”: Herbert Matter, a Designer Across Scenes and Genres

Matter’s career was that of a multidisciplinary, international designer working across commerce and culture. He was not only a graphic artist but also a photographer, type designer, art director, teacher and film-maker. His work in the field of advertising and editorial design, his collaborations with artists, his self-commissioned work, his photography and film outputs and his long-serving position as an educator provide as many entry points to analyse the impact of migration and an international network on a graphic designer’s career. It also provides a case study to analyse the professional model of the designer working as photographer and layout artist simultaneously.

Research project (2024) with Jonas Berthod, Louise Paradis, Gilles Gavillet

The historiography on the Swiss graphic designer and photographer Herbert Matter (1907–1984) is characterised by a dichotomy. On the one hand, his oeuvre is partially well-known; some of his works are regarded as amongst “the most celebrated posters in design history” and have been published so widely that they make him a canonical figure of the highest degree. On the other hand, scholarship on his career is often shallow, repetitive and limited to the recurrent reproductions of a few selected artefacts.

As is often the case with the canon, Matter’s high visibility does not translate into a refined understanding of his work. Scholarship fails to contextualise him as a multifaceted graphic designer, photographer, and film-maker whose career did not fit within a specific style or movement, but reflected influences ranging from French poster artists, Swiss modernism and American pop culture.

His profile was so unusual that the American graphic designer Paul Rand, who was active in corporate identity and branding, quipped: “I have always had the feeling that H[erbert] M[atter] on Madison Avenue was like an Eskimo in the Mohavi [sic] desert”, that is an out-of-place character in the world of New York advertising. The present project therefore provides a more nuanced discourse on Matter’s career by relating his visual work to his influences and his migration between the three scenes in which he was active: Switzerland, France and the United States. It answers the following question: How did Herbert Matter’s migration, transnational experiences and network shape his approach to graphic design?

Main applicant

Dr Jonas Berthod

Research team

Prof. Louise Paradis (University Laval, Quebec)
Gilles Gavillet (ECAL)


1.12.2023 – 31.1.2025

Supported by

HES-SO, Réseau de Compétences Design et Arts Visuels RCDAV