Matt Kahn was born on May 29, 1928, in New York City, the son of Jess and Julia Kahn. He studied at Cranbrook Academy of Art in Bloomfield Hills, Mich., where he met Lyda Weyl, his wife and partner in life and work. When he was 21, Kahn joined Stanford's Department of Art (now the Department of Art and Art History). That was in 1949, and over the following 60 years he created pioneering coursework in design and also taught painting, drawing, sculpture and color theory. Kahn was appointed assistant professor in 1953 and professor in 1965. He was the director of the U.S. State Department Craft Development Program in Cambodia in 1957-58 and taught frequently at Stanford's overseas studies program in Florence, Italy. In 1993 he received the Dean's Award for Distinguished Teaching and was heralded for his "consistent vitality and enthusiasm" and for being "an opener of doors, a stimulus and guide to the realm of possibilities" who "creates a dazzling environment" for his students.
Kahn's teaching career has focused on design, where he was an active and influential mentor to generations of aspiring designers and talented students. While at Stanford, Professor Kahn also worked as an artistic consultant to Eichler Homes, the developer of modernist homes in California in the 1950s and 1960s. In 1957 and 1958, he served as Director of the U.S. State Department's Craft and Development Program in Cambodia. Professor Kahn has garnered national prominence for his exploration of multiple art forms, from painting to sculpture, textiles, metalwork, furniture design and interiors. Over the years, he has participated in multiple exhibitions at major institutions including the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, Portland Art Museum in Oregon, and the Museum of Craft+Design in San Francisco.
Kahn retired from teaching in 2009 but continued to guest lecture for his colleagues until 2011.
He traveled extensively and was influenced by the richness he found in tribal cultures and art from around the world, much of which he collected and displayed in his iconic Eichler home on the Stanford campus. Matt and Lyda Kahn designed their home during the many years they collaborated with Joseph Eichler. It was featured in the New York Times Magazine in 2001.
Kahn's paintings, a blend of precise design, inventive form and a sharp sense of humor, were inspired by nature, humanity and the classical music he loved. His work is included in several art books and has been shown in solo and group exhibitions in Italy and the United States, including shows at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the de Young Museum in San Francisco and several exhibitions at the Thomas Welton Stanford Art Gallery commemorating milestones in his teaching career.
Kahn died June 24, 2013. He is survived by his son, Ira (AB Art '72), and daughter, Claire (AB Art '77).