Jews and design in post-war Britain

The Jewish Museum in Camden Town, London, has put on a revelatory exhibit: Designs on Britain. It’s about the works of Jewish émigré designers who escaped Hitler’s Reich to settle here. Their images and inventions contributed to the upbeat, the witty, the bright – and also sometimes the edgy –  in the day-to-day experience of British people. By the way, the show does not feature the most famous Jewish designer of the period: Abram Games was born in the UK (and has had his own one-man show at the Museum).

Hardly anyone, I think, realised or realise just how many Jewish people produced the designs which populated our lives back then. Because I can find no one-stop online bringing-together of this story, here’s my rather casual and amateur attempt…

As a baby-boomer, I can say that this is a very moving show. It helps us recall the excitement of the coolness of Penguin’s crime covers (Romek), the crispness of Westminster Council’s street signs (Black); the joyfulness of our parents’ love of the Festival of Britain (for example, Dekk); the understated brightness of fabrics on airplanes, the Tube, train carriages (for example Black); the fun of the Chopper bike or the Bond Bug (Karen); and the wit of masses of “propaganda” (public service) and advertising posters. By the way, see below, many of the most notable and successful creative émigrés were women.

The show’s title is a delight. It says these artists put their stamp on their new country; but there is a nice, sly, rather brave punning reference to the anti-semitic assumption that the Jews are always conspiring at take-over, in their quiet way.

It may be that the book of the show is excellent. I can’t find its title or any reference to it online. I know it was quite handsome because I flipped through it but like a fool I didn’t fork out the £18 I remember was its price.

I feel very grateful for these émigrés. It is less obvious what, precisely, we owe to their Jewishness. Of course, it brought them here. They contributed mightily to Polite Modernism, which contradictorily made Brutalism and Minimalism decorative.  If I had more knowledge and confidence I might speculate more forcefully as to whether these Jews adapted to British Modernism; invented mores which became British; brought something specifically Jewish to the table; brought something Germanic to the table; or (since several came from wider MittelEurop) brought something Continental to the table.

In an RIBA piece on the show, Pamela Buxton says that Romek Marber, one of the graphic 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”. Apparently, Jo Rosenthal, the show’s curator, thinks that the émigrés’ “European modernism” was new to Britain. But one might as well add that maybe the prettiness and fun the British liked was a useful addition to the Bauhaus purity (and its sometimes uncomfortable accommodation of the Gothic) of the Continent. Besides, there is British design of the late 19th and early 20th Century which seems distinctly Modernist. This is seen not least in the contribution of my grandfather, Stanley Kennedy North, who was – by the way – arguably a pioneer of British Infographics, of which more below).

One dimension of the émigré movement may be specifically Jewish: the happy marriage of the creative and the commercial. The show reminds us that the newcomers were in the forefront of new approaches to branding; they often worked for textile firms whose prime-movers were themselves Jewish. It is interesting that Britain’s first school of commercial design (the Reimann) arrived from Germany as part of the diaspora. Several of the émigrés’ back stories spoke of families which were steeped as capitalists in textile production, and in printing. The point here is that the Jewish newcomers may not have had the very English conventional, Bohemian, rather Bloomsbury disdain for commercialism and industrialisation. It is as though they had the inspiration and industry of William Morris, but with no hint of his Medievalism.  (Of course, it may be that some picked up remnants of his Ruskinite socialism, as they assimilated.)

By the way, Gerald Cinamon, the successor to the Jewish émigré Hans Schmoller as chief designer at Penguin (for whom Marber worked), devoted a good deal of effort to celebrating the work of non-Jewish designers who stayed behind in Germany and who endured various degrees of difficulty under the regime. Incidentally, some important Modernist designers were Continental émigrés, but not Jewish (Marianne Straub, for example was a Swiss gentile); some were Jewish but not very recent arrivals (Enid Marx was born here in 1902).

It is not a sideline to mention that there was something special – Jewish, Continental, whatever – about the Viennese exodus from Nazism. Otto Neurath, 1882-1945, economist and philosopher, arrived in Britain with his ideas and practice of Isotypes, which became the backbone of Infographics.

Walter Neurath (1903-1967), another Viennese (and a relation?) arrived and turned his love of art into Thames & Hudson, the publisher which took some of the snobbery out of connoisseurship. The firm was co-founded by his wife, Eva (1908-2000), herself an émigré from Vienna, and apparently an important ingredient in the company’s graphic innovations. She was always very friendly toward me when in the late 60s I delivered groceries to her gorgeous house on Highgate Hill from the local branch of Walter, Hassell and Port, often after I’d  dropped things off at the Yehudi Menuhin house in Highgate Grove which would become Sting’s later.

Another Jewish émigré I met at about that time was Gerti Kvergic, the manager of The Economists’ Bookshop, Clare Market, in the purlieus of the LSE. Mrs Kvergic (I doubt I ever knew her first name) was as fierce a boss as she was a chain-smoker, but she never really frightened me and I certainly knew that I was lucky to learn something about bookselling from her and those about her. (I soon realised that I was not cut-out for the trade.) For a flavour of her background and style, try the remarkable piece written by her for The Spectator, in 1944, about her belief in books as saviours, and her appetite for Englishness.

Some online leads
What follows is the result of a few happy hours online with Jewish and some other émigrés and their works.

Berthold Wolpe
Faber & Faber covers

Dorritt Dekk
Did very jolly work of the exuberant style of the 1950s, as seen in her skirts-and-smiles images for the Festival of Britain and for clients such as P&O.

F H K Henrion

Hans Schleger

Hans Unger

Jacqueline Groag

George Him

Gaby Schreiber

Tom Karen
Designed the Chopper, which was the object of desire for (mostly) boys in the 1970s. Also the  Bond Bug, which was hoped to be the post-Robin future for Reliant’s family of three-wheelers, and was briefly chic. Was part of the triumph of the colour orange.

Elizabeth Friedlander
Her work is now being properly explored in a show at the Ditchling Museum of Arts and Crafts

Romek Marber
Famous for Penguin crime covers.

Stan Kroll

Sir Misha Black
Designer of famous Westminster street signs, tube trains and moquette fabrics for transport seating. A great ambassador and organiser for the design world.

Tibor Reich
Textile, industrialist textile family, Hungary. His designs are still on sale in several colourways.

Enid Marx
1902-1998, born in London. Had her own design business from 1920s,-1946/enid-marx

Marianne Straub
1909-1994, born Switzerland. An interesting cross-over craft-industrial creator, with Ditchling connections.

Lovely  account of the evolution of the visual presentation of data

Reimann School
Moved to London from Berlin in 1937 and was the first commercial art school in the UK.

German designers
A splendid tour d’horizon by Gerald Cinamon


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Publication date

14 December 2017


Mind & body; On art