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The immigrants who shaped modern British design

The immigrants who shaped modern British design

An exhibition in London shows how a generation of Jewish émigré designers made a profound contribution to their adopted country

An exhibition in London shows how a generation of Jewish émigré designers made a profound contribution to their adopted country

Anna Baddeley | November 7th 2017

On a spring evening in Vienna in 1938, shortly after Austria had been annexed by Nazi Germany, a young art student called Dorrit Fuhrmann made her way to a theatre for the opening of a production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”. It was a special occasion for Furhmann (whose real name was Dorothy – her mother was a fan of Charles Dickens) because she had designed the set herself. On arriving at the theatre, she found a makeshift sign at the entrance: “Jews not allowed”. Fuhrmann was Jewish. Mercifully, she had been born in Czechoslovakia so didn’t need permission from the Nazis to leave Austria. With the help of her professor, she secured a place at an art school in London.
 
After the war, during which she worked in naval intelligence, Fuhrmann got a job for the British government designing posters with public-information messages like “coughs and sneezes spread diseases”. In 1948, by which time she was using the pen-name Dorrit Dekk, she was asked to design a stand for the Festival of Britain, a national celebration of art and industry that was intended to reinvigorate a war-ravaged country. Her joyful mural of British sports and games made her name, and soon her posters for London Transport and Orient Line ferries (she was known as the “travel queen”) could be seen all over London.

Study for Festival of Britain mural (1951) by Dorrit Dekk

Dekk, who died in 2014, is one of the designers whose work is on show in “Designs on Britain”, a small but perfectly formed exhibition at the Jewish Museum in Camden, north London. The curators are keen to show how much “iconic British design” – from wartime progaganda posters to fabric for London’s buses and tube carriages to the Raleigh Chopper bicycle – was produced by artists who weren’t born in Britain.
 
Refugees from continental Europe enriched their adopted country with their entrepreneurial drive, their knowledge of new artistic movements like modernism and surrealism, and their chutzhpah (Dekk lied when the Festival of Britain committee asked her if she had painted a mural before). The catalogue includes an apposite quotation from Niklaus Pevsner, the architectural historian who, as a German with Jewish heritage, was forced to emigrate to Britain in the 1930s. “England”, he wrote, “has indeed profited just as much from the un-Englishness of the immigrants as they have profited from the Englishing they underwent.”

 

“The Vegetabull” (1941) by Lewitt-Him

Nazi Germany might have had state-of-the-art weapons and a ruthlessly efficient army, but the Allies had a far more important weapon: humour. George Him and Jan Le Witt, Polish designers who moved to London in the 1930s, prove that you don’t need to be born in Britain to have a British sense of humour. In fact, coming to English as a second language might have inspired them to pun on the word “vegetable”. This government-issued poster, which tried to persuade people to eat more vegetables at a time when meat was in short supply, may have been stretching the truth with its claim that “a vegetable dish made with dried eggs or household milk is as good as a joint”, but the Arcimboldo-inspired bull is so delightful it doesn’t matter.

City of Westminster street sign (1967) by Misha Black

Misha Black was born Moisey Tcherny in Baku, then in Russia, in 1910. When he was a toddler, his parents – attracted by Britain’s religious freedoms and educational opportunities – moved their family to London. Though they were not rich and Black (his father changed the family name) had only a modest education, he became a leading industrial designer and academic and was knighted in 1972. One of his most famous designs was for the street signs in the City of Westminster, the London borough that contains tourist hotspots like Carnaby Street, Piccadilly Circus and Abbey Road. The utilitarian yet elegant enamelled iron sign is as much a part of the fabric of London as red buses, Buckingham Palace and Big Ben.

 

Covers for Penguin books (c. 1960s) by Romek Marber

Romek Marber survived the Holocaust in Poland and in 1946 moved to London, where he became a freelance designer. His big break came when a friend of his, Peter Dunbar, was appointed art director of The Economist. Until the late 1950s, The Economist had no pictures on its cover, just text. Marber was one of the paper’s first cover designers, producing striking red and black images in his own living room. His work was noticed by Penguin, the publisher, which recruited him to design the covers for a series of crime novels. Before Marber came along, Penguin’s covers were, to quote Marber, “a muddle”. He came up with the idea of using the same “grid” – splitting the cover into white space, typography and artwork – for all the books in a series. This gave a uniform look to the books, even if very different styles of illustration were used. His approach worked so well that Penguin used it for its other fiction and non-fiction lists.

In a filmed interview in the exhibition, Marber explains how his graphic, abstract style marked a break with the past: “What I made then was considered very fashionable. The English were not accustomed to this kind of art, they still had a pre-war approach. In fact, in this case, ‘pre-war’ means from the end of the 19th century.”

 

Poster for the Post Office Savings Bank (1969) by Dorrit Dekk

Making a savings account seem sexy is a tall order, but Dorrit Dekk managed it with this ad for Britain’s Post Office Savings Bank in 1969. The bright colours and Summer of Love aesthetic catch your eye, while the bride and groom add a sense of stability, as if to reassure people that their money will not be managed by hippies.

Many of the posters in the exhibition have a wit and artistry you rarely see today, when “brand” more often than not means “bland”. In 1946, Noel Carrington, a designer and author, wrote, “The invasion of foreign talent is no bad thing for [advertising] in England, which...tends towards conservatism.” It is important to be reminded how much Britain owes to those talented foreigners.

Designs on Britain Jewish Museum, London, until April 15th

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