Life & Culture

The émigrés with designs on British icons

Jewish refugees dominated British graphic design in the 1940s, creating many of our most iconic symbols. Julia Weiner, co-curator of a new exhibition of their work explains how this came about


The symbol for John Lewis, London Transport bus stops. The National Theatre’s corporate identity, the brown and orange fabric that covered the seats on the London Underground. All of these quintessentially British designs were created by Jewish artists who arrived in this country as refugees in the 1930s and 40s.

For the past two years, I have been working with Naomi Games, daughter of renowned British designer Abram Games as guest curators for a new exhibition, Designs on Britain which opens at the Jewish Museum next week. We have spent time in the archives of the Victoria & Albert Museum and the University of Brighton, visited companies for whom the designers worked and borrowed works from the designers and their families.

The idea for the exhibition came to Naomi after the Museum organised a very successful exhibition of her father’s work to mark the centenary of his birth in 2014. As she explains, “I grew up in a house full of design and designers. The designers were friends of my parents. We had an open house and it was a lovely happy house. I knew them all with great affection. After Abram’s exhibition, I started to think about all those people who used to visit our house and decided it was about time their work was shown too.”

Her father’s work is not included as we chose to include only those designers who were born abroad, and Games was born in Whitechapel. He was, however, close friends with almost all the designers included.

We soon realised that there were too many émigré designers to include. So we narrowed the focus to look at the work that was done for major British companies or British events. Amazingly, many of the designers went from being interned to working for the War Office. Post-war, the 1951 Festival of Britain was very significant, as Naomi makes clear. “In 1948, a number of the designers included in the exhibition were commissioned to produce work for the Festival. This was a nationwide party to celebrate the end of the war and a new beginning. It meant that they entered the world of design in a blaze of glory.” They went on to work for many travel companies including London Transport and British Rail, for the General Post Office, the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents (RoSPA) as well as in corporate identity for companies such as Penguin, John Lewis and Schweppes.

Why did these foreign-born designers make such an important contribution to British design? Some had studied at celebrated design schools on the continent where they had learnt new modernist techniques such as photomontage, which had not yet reached Britain, and they had also been influenced by artistic styles such as Surrealism and Abstraction.

Others studied at the Reimann School, founded in 1902 in Berlin but forced to relocate to London in 1937 after Nazi persecution of its Jewish owners. It was the first commercial art school to open in Britain.

Of the 20 designers included in the exhibition, the best-known is probably Hans Schleger. Naomi remembers him well. “He was a generation older than my father and had more experience than the others, having already worked in America before he made his home in Britain. Also very well known is FHK Henrion whom my father met at the War Office and stayed friends with for life. Schleger and Henrion are now both part of the British design establishment because they were so influential. Schleger designed the London Transport bus stop, the symbol for John Lewis. Henrion designed some very fine war posters as well as the corporate identity for companies including the National Theatre, the National Girobank and the London Electricity Board.” In the V&A archives are the designs Schleger made for Deutsche Bank, completed in the early 1930s before Hitler’s ascent to power and the exhibition includes a powerful design by Henrion entitled Four Hands and dated 1944. It was a design for the US Office of War Information, for use in Europe after D-Day and shows four hands, each marked with the flag of one of the allies, pulling apart a swastika.

We were delighted to include the work of a number of prominent women designers. Dorrit Dekk worked for London Transport, the GPO and P&O producing brightly coloured and witty posters. Textile designer Jacqueline Groag, who designed the celebrated brown and orange moquette for the seats of the Underground was, we found, particularly proud when the Queen wore a dress made of her tulip design fabric. Elizabeth Friedlander, who designed a masthead for The JC, is one of a number of typographers included. Other are Berthold Wolpe who designed street signs for the City of London and Hans Schmoller who became art director of Penguin Books.

I ask Naomi if the designers that she knew had anything in common. “I think they all felt that they were outsiders. All were involved in various professional organisations and they mixed together. They were all very supportive to each other and helped each other to find clients and commissions.”

Each of the designers was Jewish-born but, Naomi says “it was very strange that none were particularly orthodox in their outlook, unlike my father who apparently encouraged them to be more observant. Religion was very important for my father and he did a lot of work for Jewish community.” George Him, who was an engaging and large man in every sense of the word worked hard for Israel. But even he had not had a particularly Jewish upbringing and indeed, he once told the JC, “My parents were agnostics and I had no Orthodox relatives or friends. At home, the only festive occasion celebrated was the Seder, and that was merely a well-decked table with matzah at one end and bread at the other.”’ Him was close friends with Jerusalem mayor Teddy Kollek, with whom he had studied in Russia. It is probable that many of the commissions he received from Israeli organisations came through Kollek. In 1960, he was appointed Chief Designer for El Al, creating numerous designs for the company.

Henrion also worked closely with Israel as his parents had settled there before the war. He designed brochures for the Jewish Committee for Relief Abroad and for WIZO and he regularly taught at the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design in Jerusalem.

So which designers does Naomi remember best? “Hans Unger, who produced more designs for London Transport than the others, was very much part of our family but had no children of his own. In fact out of all of them, he was the most omnipresent in our home. He adopted us Games kids almost as his own children and took us out for day trips to the seaside in his little sports car.” Unger specialised in mosaics and some of his LT posters are based on mosaic designs, one of which is included in the exhibition. Naomi also remembers Arnold Rothholz, designer of forceful posters for RoSPA . “The Rothholz and Games families were very close and always in each other houses and going on holidays together.”

Preparing for this exhibition has been a very special experience for Naomi. “I am thrilled not only because these designers are getting the recognition that they deserved but it also means that I have re-established contact and made friends with the children of many of them.”


Designs on Britain opens at the Jewish Museum on October 19 and continues until April 15 2018

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