Cultured fibroblasts adhere to extracellular substrates by means of cell-matrix adhesions that are assembled in a hierarchical way, thereby gaining in protein complexity and size. Here we asked how restricting the size of cell-matrix adhesions affects cell morphology and behavior. Using a nanostencil technique, culture substrates were patterned with gold squares of a width and spacing between 250 nm and 2 mu m. The gold was functionalized with RGD peptide as ligand for cellular integrins, and mouse embryo fibroblasts were plated. Limiting the length of cell-matrix adhesions to 500 nm or less disturbed the maturation of vinculin-positive focal complexes into focal contacts and fibrillar adhesions, as indicated by poor recruitment of alpha 5-integrin. We found that on sub-micrometer patterns, fibroblasts spread extensively, but did not polarize. Instead, they formed excessive numbers of lamellipodia and a fine actin meshwork without stress fibers. Moreover, these cells showed aberrant fibronectin fibrillogenesis, and their speed of directed migration was reduced significantly compared to fibroblasts on 2 mu m square patterns. Interference with RhoA/ROCK signaling eliminated the pattern-dependent differences in cell morphology. Our results indicate that manipulating the maturation of cell-matrix adhesions by nanopatterned surfaces allows to influence morphology, actin dynamics, migration and ECM assembly of adhering fibroblasts.