Exhibition reveals the overlooked significance of Jewish émigrés’ contribution to 20th century British art
Staged at the Jewish Museum London, the exhibition Designs on Britain is an eloquent testimony to the key contribution of refugees – in this case those fleeing Nazism – to British culture. So much of what seems so essentially British – war-time propaganda posters, classic book covers, design at the Festival of Britain, the Raleigh Chopper bike, even the very seating fabric of the London transport system, was designed by Jewish émigrés as they re-established their careers in their newly-adopted land.
‘We were aware that the huge contribution that émigré designers had made to British design hadn’t really been recognized before,’ says Jo Rosenthal, co-curator and head of exhibitions at Jewish Museum London.
‘When people travel, ideas do too and they brought with them new ways of working,’ she said, adding that as outsiders, they were perhaps able to gain a clearer understanding of the national identity.
The exhibition explores the individuals behind this work and celebrates the virtuosity of their work. Immersed in European modernism, their work stood out at a time when British design had reached something of an impasse, according to Rosenthal.
‘Everything they were making looked incredibly fresh,’ she says.
Romek Marber, one of the designers in the exhibition, goes as far as describing British design at the time as still looking back to the 19th century, quite a contrast with the forward-looking work of the émigrés.
The exhibition starts off with a brief look at the individual stories of the 18 designers featured before leading into themed sections showing design for sectors such as transport, publishing, industrial design and textile design. Along the way we learn about the Reimann School, which moved to London from Berlin in 1937 and was the first commercial art school in the UK. We can also watch footage and reminiscences of the Festival of Britain.
Not that the émigrés’ progess in re-establishing their careers after the trauma of leaving their homelands was all plain sailing – some, including corporate identity pioneer FHK Henrion, were interned during the war. The émigré networks were clearly an important source of support and, sometimes, work for many years to come.
This show has great visual appeal. The exhibition is something of a tribute to the art of poster design, including the prolific outpouring of public information design during the war. This incudes FHK Henrion’s Four Hands (1944), whose design of four clenched fists representing France, Britain, USA and Russia ripping apart a Swastika is particularly powerful, shown both as artwork and finished poster. Other memorable images include The Vegetabull (1943) by George Him and Jan Le Witt, which uses vegetables to create the shape of a bull in a bid to encourage people to eat more vegetables.
The power of design in publishing is also explored, with the introduction of memorable cover designs through the use of consistent grids and design guidelines. Exhibits include work for Penguin by Marber, who survived the Holocaust in a Polish ghetto before studying design in London, and for Faber & Faber by Berthold Wolpe, who designed more than 1500 covers for the publisher.
A number of key design figures stand out. Misha Black, born in Baku and founder of the Design Research Unit in 1943, was clearly an important force in post-war design, especially in his role overseeing the aesthetic of the Victoria Line in the 1960s, with each station design reflecting local history. FHK Henrion and Hans Schleger in particular led the way in the new field of corporate identity design with designs for British European Airways, Tate and Lyle, KLM (Henrion) and London Transport, Mac Fisheries, Shell (Schleger) respectively.
It’s great to see the work of Tom Karen, who emigrated to Britain from Vienna in 1942, and listen to him talking about his designs in a short film. Although best known for the design of the 70’s classic Raleigh Chopper bike, he was no one-hit wonder, designing the Bush TR130 radio, the popular build-your-own marble-run for Kiddicraft, and a rather fantastic looking sporty three-wheeler, the Bond Bug for Reliant. Sadly, although it sold in 17 countries across four continents from 1970-74, it was not a commercial success.
The contribution of women designers is another thread running through the show. Jacqueline Groag, who studied textile design in Vienna with Josef Hofmann, went on to create the familiar seating fabric for London Transport as well as working for other clients such as ICI, Dunlop and the British Overseas Airways Corporation. Dorrit Dekk – one of a host of émigrés in the show to have contributed to the Festival of Britain – created often playful posters and graphic design work for Post Office Savings Bank and P&O among many. The typographer Elizabeth Friedlander moved to the UK in 1939 and worked in ‘black’ propaganda for the Political Intelligence Department. While still in Berlin she had designed the Elizabeth typeface, known by her first name rather than the more customary surname because this was Jewish.
Seen en masse, the Jewish émigré contribution to British design was clearly immense and it’s pertinent to celebrate this at a time when immigration is such a contentious issue. Any Little Englanders could learn a lot from visiting this show.