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.
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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.
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.”
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.”
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
House of Illustration
House of Illustration's building in King's Cross is now permanently closed but we continue our work online and will reopen in 2022 as the Quentin Blake Centre for Illustration in Islington.