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Immigrants Get the Job Done

A new exhibition at the Jewish Museum is celebrating the impact of Jewish designers on Britain

Designs on Britain, a new exhibition at the Jewish Museum, is displaying the work of 18 designers and artists who all have one thing in common: they were refugees fleeing Nazism from Germany, Austria and eastern Europe to find a new home and hub for their creativity in Britain.

These Jewish artists brought with them a completely new aesthetic, before unknown in the UK, a different sensibility influenced by the Bauhaus style and Modernism of inter-war Germany, an era of creative boom that was suddenly cut short by the rise of fascism and anti-Semitism. Offering them a sanctuary from prosecution, the UK profited substantially from their expertise, vitality and creativity enriching British culture. As British art collector Walter Cook put it: “Hitler shook the tree and England collected the apples.” The legacy of these Jewish designers is still very much visible today in a lot of everyday objects, posters and logos that we take for granted on London’s and Britain’s high streets and homes.

Bus stop flag, Schleger style with bronze frame, 1935 © TfL from the London Transport Museum collection. 

During the war, the British government embraced the value of design for mass communication and propaganda. Many of these propaganda posters were created by Jewish designers. Some of them, such as Arnold Rothholz and Frederick Henri Kay Henrion, had been initially interned on the Isle of Man since their German descent made them enemies first.
The Festival of Britain in 1951 was devised as an optimistic celebration, a chance to revitalise the nation after a devastating war, mark the end of a depressed era and look towards a brighter future. Although the Festival celebrated “an English-speaking, Christian nation”, a large number of Jewish designers were central to the Festival, from Misha Black co-ordinating the South Bank Exhibition to Abram Games designing the Festival’s logo. The Festival also served as a launching pad with the public just becoming aware of what design actually is. England still had a rather conservative, pre-war approach to design. What these foreign artists brought was seen as very fashionable and new, from Dorrit Dekk’s playful designs and sketches anticipating the 70s Beatles aesthetic to the NT logo of the National Theatre, still unchanged today, the logo of John Lewis or the packaging of Tate Lyle sugar.

Bourdon Place street sign, designed by Misha Black, 1960s, © Jewish Museum London

When London Transport set about forging a coherent identity for its services, they commissioned some forward thinking designers to redefine the visual language of modern transport. The now iconic bar and circle design symbol on bus stops and the tube had been around in various forms since 1910 but German born Hans Schleger transformed it into the slick trademark design we now know, giving London transport a unified corporate identity. For the first time, the idea of branding and corporate image emerged. Hungarian textile designer Tibor Reich created patterns inspired by nature using new techniques, styles and colours for fabrics that were used for the seats and upholstery of the tube, the Southbank Festival Pavillion and the interior of the Concorde.
The entire aesthetic of the Victoria Line was conceived by Misha Black, head of the Design Research Unit, when it was constructed in the 1960s. Black commissioned other émigré artists for the tiled murals at each station inspired by its location: Hans Unger created the murals at Brixton and Green Park Station, Oxford Circus and Seven Sisters. Abram Games designed the mosaic swan at Stockwell. Black also is responsible for the black, white and red design of the street signs around Westminster City.

Penguin Books embraced design and corporate identity, commissioning not just Romek Marber’s graphic cover designs known as Marber Grid, but also typographers such as Hans Schmoller, Elizabeth Friedlander and Berthold Wolpe who designed the Elisabeth and the Albertus font. Considering how fashionable obsessing over the right font has become today, it is extraordinary to see the birth of packaging, advertising and corporate design in this exhibition. The Reimann School in Berlin, where many of the designers studied, was moved to London after closure by the Nazis and actually became England’s first commercial arts school.

Raleigh Chopper bicycle. The Chopper was originally designed by Tom Karen and launched in 1969. © Jewish Museum London

In the field of industrial design, Austrian born Tom Karen invented the three wheeled Bond Bug car and the Chopper bicycle, a symbol of 1970s childhood, whose straight frames and big handle were inspired by Formula 1 cars. His neat small portable Bush radio TR130 was the bestselling product of the 60s and is once again popular today for its retro look.
With discussions and opinions about refugees and immigration on everybody’s lips and TV screens, it is vital to consider how much this country has benefitted from foreign talent and how much their legacy has shaped our everyday life.
Designs on Britain is at the Jewish Museum till 15 April