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George Him: A Polish designer for Mid-Century Britain

a watercolour showing rooftops and a man in a tin hat with binoculars on the highest roof

Untitled painting, c. 1938 © The Estate of George Him

The House of Illustration shines a light on the work of the influential Polish émigré and British mid-century designer George Him

Despite being a Royal Designer for Industry and a favourite of iconic British brands such as Penguin Books and Transport for London, George Him’s work has received far less recognition than that of his UK-born contemporaries.

Yet the Polish-Jewish émigré is considered by many students of British graphic design to be the man who really brought Modernist aesthetics and a sense of the European avant garde to British design, making him a seminal figure in mid-century graphics.

This House of Illustration exhibition includes over half a century’s worth of his propaganda posters, advertisements, point-of-sale displays, children’s book illustrations, toys and cover art for clients in Poland, the UK, the USA and Israel, so it’s a good opportunity to re-acquaint yourself with his work.

It also features sketches and reportage from Him’s travels overseas together with personal objects from his St John’s Wood studio.

a series of four posters showing designs for Schweppes bottle tops

Bottle labels for Schweppes, 1960 © George Him, courtesy of the Estate of George Him

Poster for London Underground with a rial man in coat and hat with the lines of the underground mapped out across his coat

Be Map Conscious, poster for London Transport, 1945 © The Estates of George Him and Jan Le Witt

a colourful poster of kids playing hopscotch whihc bis mapped out on the orange earth

Hopscotch in Pakistan, greetings card for Unicef, 1954 © The Estates of George Him and Jan Le Witt

Born Jerzy Himmelfarb to Russian Jewish parents in Lodz, Poland in 1900, Him was based in Warsaw until 1937. He studied law in Moscow until the Russian Revolution meant the closing of the faculty, then earned a PhD in the comparative history of religions in Bonn before enrolling at the Leipzig Academy for Graphic Art and Book Industry.

He worked as a graphic designer from 1922, forming the Lewitt-Him partnership with abstract artist, graphic designer and illustrator, Jan Le Witt in 1933 after the pair met fortuitously in a Warsaw café.

Another stroke of fortune came Him’s way in 1937 when art book publishers Lund Humphries brought the pair to the UK in 1937 for an exhibition at the V&A. Both were Jewish and they stayed throughout the Second World War. Him was naturalised British in 1948.

The Lewitt-Him partnership ended in 1955, following Jan Le Witt’s decision to concentrate on his own abstract art, after which Him continued as an independent designer, a job which by his own admission was as much a lifestyle choice as it was an occupation.

“I managed to do for money what I would have done in exactly the same way had I been working for my own satisfaction,” he later admitted.

Way ahead of his time, he was an early champion of design as a worthy vocation in its own right, describing graphic designers “not as great artists graciously descending from their ivory tower to paint a pretty picture for an enterprising manufacturer, but practitioners… serving a clear-cut purpose and judged, not merely by aesthetic standards, but also by the degree in which it fulfils its given task.”

a poster with several red phones each with flags on them jauntily placed over a map of Europe, Africa and the Middle East

Cover design for New Middle East 1 © The Estate of George Him

a poster with carrots and other vegetables rising from a chimney like smoke

The Effects of Overcooking and Keeping Hot, poster for the Ministry of Food, 1943 © The Estates of George Him and Jan Le Witt

a drawing of a studio with drawing tables and mezzanine floor

George Him’s studio c. 1955 © The Estate of George Him

Him used a distinctive blend of hard modernist lines and empathetic humour across his varied output – and he would turn his hand towards everything from posters, book jackets and toys to window displays, advertisement pop ups and exhibition stands.

He worked on numerous campaigns and commissions including: wartime posters for the Ministries of Information and Food and the Polish and Dutch governments in exile; advertisements for Schweppes, the Post Office, Technicolor, The Times and American Overseas Airlines; corporate logos and branding for El Al airlines and the Australian Trade Commission; exhibition design for the Warsaw Ghetto Exhibition and the Masada Exhibition; magazine cover designs for New Middle East; television graphics for the Giant Alexander; and illustrations for a range of books published by Penguin and others.

He was made Chief Designer at El Al airlines in 1960, became a Senior Lecturer in Graphic Design at Leicester Polytechnic in 1969 and was elected a Royal Designer for Industry in 1977. He died in 1982 at the age of 81.

“George Him was both an exceptional designer and an essential early voice for the social value of the practice of graphic design,” says Curator Olivia Ahmad. “Along with many other Jewish émigrés fleeing Nazi persecution in Europe in the 1930s and ’40s, Him brought European modernist sensibilities to the UK, transforming British graphic design and illustration in the process.

“At a time when Him’s contemporaries from the Royal College of Art’s ‘outbreak of talent’ are receiving their due recognition, we are proud to re-establish Him’s vital work in the story of 20th century British graphics.”

a poster with aeroplanes tie up a map with a rope tied to each of their tails

Shrinking Travel Time, poster for American Overseas Airlines, 1948 © The Estates of George Him and Jan Le Witt

a poster with large A.O.A letters and a plane flying through the centre of them

Poster for American Overseas Airlines 3, 1946 © The Estates of George Him and Jan Le Witt

a poster with six cows piled up like acrobats

Australian Butter, poster for the Australian Trade Commission, 1962 © The Estate of George Him

a cardbaord diorama showing a family eating a feast

Pop-up tabernacle for El Al 5 © The Estate of George Him

a poster with cartoon coat of arms with a shield flanked by a man waering a deer stalker and another wearing cricket gear

Detail of Schweppeshire Coat of Arms, from County of Schweppeshire advertising campaign for Schweppes, 1950 © The Estate of George Him.

The exhibition is part of Insiders/Outsiders, a nationwide arts festival celebrating refugees from Nazi Europe and their impact on British culture. It highlights the indelible contribution of the artists, photographers, writers, architects, designers, actors, film-makers, dancers and musicians as well as publishers, art historians, dealers and collectors who, in fleeing Nazi-dominated Europe in the 1930s and 1940s, greatly enriched this country’s culture.

George Him: A Polish Designer for Mid-Century Britain is at the House of Illustration unitl May 10 2020

 

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The House of Illustration is the world’s first centre dedicated to the art of illustration in all its forms. Our aim is to put illustration centre stage and give it the attention it deserves, revealing the creative processes behind illustration and the way in which it impacts on our daily…

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