Romek Marber


It was the Economist which alerted Penguin Books to the talents of émigré graphic designer Romek Marber — and suddenly the post-modern shift from conventional book covers to Marber’s enigmatic imagery lent Penguin a new identity. It was known as the Marber Grid.

Marber, who has died aged 94 could barely speak English when he first reached Britain in 1946, having escaped the concentration camps of Poland.

He told the story of his escape via Switzerland and Italy in his memoir No Return: Journeys in the Holocaust (2010). In the late 1940s, while sweeping floors at a London clothing factory, he met a Belgian dress designer who encouraged him to study painting at St Martin’s. Unfortunately, he was not eligible for a grant, as refugees could only claim financial support for vocational courses. So he chose to study design instead.

He enrolled at the Royal College of Art and was later offered work at Crawford’s Advertising but turned it down to start his own practice, boosted by teaching and working for Herbert Spencer, the designer/editor of Typographica.

He was hired by the Economist in 1961 to design a series of front covers. They captured the post-war zeitgeist, highlighting the political changes during the missile crisis one year later. The paper’s reputation and large circulation provided Marber with the perfect opportunity to depict the stand-off between US President John F Kennedy and the tempestuous Soviet leader Nikita Kruschev in his distinctly Modernist style.

Originally the Economist covers were purely text, but the style changed to visuals printed on very thin newsprint, “I loved doing those covers,” he told John J Walters in an interview for Eye in 2016. The newsprint and the coarseness of the half-tone letterpress suited the black-and-red boldness of his work.

Marber was one of a handful of influential standout pioneers in a new profession, which had been dominated by English traditionalism on the one hand and American brashness on the other. Marber brought something quite different to the table — an original take on European Modernism filtered by the ever present sense of the émigré. In 2017, Marber’s work was featured alongside the designs of 18 Jewish émigré artists in an exhibition at the Jewish Museum called Designs on Britain.

He attracted the attention of Penguin’s art director Germano Facetti who was keen to inject new life into the publisher’s crime series. Marber retained Penguin’s visual history using a grid underscoring the mystery nature of the crime series. It became so successful that retailers sent back old stock, clamouring for the new best-selling designs, which were seen as authentic and powerful.

Marber worked for many clients, including manufacturers, distributors, publishers, newspapers and film producers, using a sans serif type, and sharp graphics based on photography and photograms. He won many commissions including Nicholson’s London Street Finder map books . ‘‘That is where I really learned about typography … how to specify the page for the printer — a most valuable experience for someone leaving art school”, he said.

In 1964, he became art director of the Observer’s colour supplement in which he presented his contemporary view of society.

Born in Turek, Poland, Romek Marber was one of the three children of Moshe Marber, a textile factory manager, and Bronka née Szajniak, a children’s charity worker. Their escape route from the Nazis via Warsaw was cut off by a siege of the city. Moshe, who was on the Gestapo wanted list, managed to flee with his elder son Kuba, but both Romek and his twin sister Roma, their mother and grandparents were sent to the Bochnia ghetto east of Krakow.

Returning from a forced labour march, he found the rest of his family had been murdered in the Belzec concentration camp. Armed with a forged identity card, Marber reached Hungary in 1943, until his guide betrayed him to the Gestapo. He was marched to Auschwitz and then Flossenburg at Plattling camp from where US soldiers liberated him in 1945.

At the end of the war, he crossed the Alps into Italy, intent on reaching Palestine, but on hearing that his father and brother were alive in London, he changed his mind and joined them.

With a grant from the Committee for the Education of Poles, he studied commercial art at St Martin’s in 1950, where he met his future wife Sheila Perry. A course in graphic art at the RCA led to his becoming an assistant to Herbert Spencer in 1956. He set up his own Harley Street practice which launched him into the Economist, Penguin Books and the Observer.

Work designing animated film titles followed, including a trailer for Peter Watkins’s 1966 nuclear war docudrama The War Games, commissioned by the BBC but banned from broadcast until 1985. In 1987, he became chief graphic design consultant at Hornsey College of Art, combined with his own studio work. He had written his 2010 memoir for his family alone, but his good friend, the designer Richard Hollis insisted it be published.

Recalling his simple needs when he started out – a table, pens and brushes — in the time well before computers, he told Eye: “Design wasn’t such a clean profession that all one had to do was hit the keys of a keyboard. It was necessary to have skills in order to express oneself visually — what one wanted to do. Even to draw a clean straight line without smudging …”

Sheila died in 1989. Marber had refused to revisit Poland, but relented in 2015 when the first exhibition of his designs was launched at the Galicia Jewish Museum in Krakow. He travelled there with his partner, the designer Orna Frommer-Dawson.

His work can now be seen in the V & A’s design archive. Despite his late start, typical of many émigré designers, Marber left a powerful mark on the world of British design. He is survived by Orna.


Romek Marber: born November 25, 1925. Died March 30, 2020

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