By the late 1940s, the New Haven Railroad boasted one of the most modern fleets in the country — and arguably, what was, in its time, one of the most identifiable symbols in America.
In April 1954, Patrick B. McGinnis became president of the New Haven Railroad. An outspoken and controversial executive who vowed to lead train travel into the space age, his tenure would last less than two years — yet during this time, his artistically-trained wife initiated a program to rethink the company’s corporate image through the use of graphic design principles. Working with Florence Knoll on the then-new executive suite at Grand Central Terminal, Lucille McGinnis convinced her husband that the railroad needed a new logo.
Enter Herbert Matter, Swiss-born designer, photographer and Yale professor whose own education was framed by apprenticeships with Cassandre, Leger and Le Corbusier. Assisted by Norman Ives, Matter developed a forceful typographic pairing of uppercase “N” and H” letterforms that included monochromatic as well as two-color (red/black and later, blue/black) variations. The new visual identity debuted in April of 1955 — exactly one year after McGinnis took office. Matter was named Design Director for the New Haven Railroad a mere two months later.
Matter’s new identity was a tour-de-force of mid-century modernism: restrained, colorful and sleek, the bars of color that graced the long, steel bodies of the train cars amplified their streamlined form. The logo debuted on a series of new lightweight trains, and their formal improvements (which required a series of trains, called EP-5’s, that had a new size and shape) were articulated by three wide horizontal stripes of color. “To add zest, the stripes would not taper and curve but would end in sharply raked angles,” notes train historian Joe Cunningham. “Roof cab and nose top would be black, noses would be white with a horizontal black diamond surrounding the headlight. A wave of the contrasting color would rise to a peak below the headlight diamond. On sides and ends, block letters would form an N above an H, with the colors set off from the background.”
Curiously, it was the color palette that proved difficult to resolve. In order to facilitate its selection, technicians at the GE plant produced two trains, one in canary yellow with black, and the other in a trio of white, black and red-orange. Matter chose the latter which, coincidentally, matched the red scarf, black coat and white gloves that the fashionably-attired Lucille McGinnis wore to the GE plant the very day the newly-painted trains were being presented. “Matter noted that yellow was fashionable but showed dirt,” Cunningham explains. “Mrs. McGinnis agreed, saying the red looked powerful.”
There are a couple of further things to say. The exaggerated slab serifs of Matter’s identity implicitly recall the mid 19C origins of the railroad. The design choice to work with pre-modern and serifed letterforms was in marked contrast to the prevailing typographic aesthetic of the mid-century, machine-age, modernity in the USA.
The engine livery also has an interestingly sharp, dazzle effect. This is bit like the camouflage patterns developed for battleships during WW1. You can see the geometry clearly on the front of the can units.
Here’s a Matter cover design for Fortune magazine
Matter was also art director and photographer for the Eames Studio and for Knoll. I’ve posted before about the Eames Studio and their films.
Herbert Matter’s name has been in the news recently. The family has discovered a whole garage full of Jackson Pollock paintings.
This is the standard work on Matter at present. I believe that Kerry Purcell has been working on something more complete and up-to-date.
I also found an excellent model site, which is full of technical information about the New Haven Railroad in 1959.