How Jewish immigrants dramatically reshaped the UK

Posted November 6, 2017 6:13 a.m. EST

— Modern British design was profoundly influenced by Jewish immigrants who fled Nazi Europe in the 1930s and 1940s. Seeking refuge in the UK, they brought new skills and ideas to the industry, according to a new exhibition at London's Jewish Museum.

Showcasing the work of around 20 designers, "Designs on Britain" spans industrial and graphic design, branding, publishing and typography.

"It shows how much we owe to immigrants, outsiders (and) people who weren't raised in Britain, who arrived here -- for the most part -- as refugees," said curator Joanne Rosenthal in a phone interview. "Some of the most iconic British designs were produced by immigrants to this country."

The exhibition features designs commissioned by notable public institutions such as London Transport, British Rail and the General Post Office. It also highlights Jewish immigrants' influence on major British brands like Penguin Books, the sugar company Tate & Lyle and retail group John Lewis.

"There were many emigre designers who did important work here, so we decided to make a selection based on people who worked for the biggest and most quintessentially British organizations," Rosenthal said.

"Still, it wasn't easy to select the designers, as there were so many good candidates. It was an extraordinary generation."

Groundbreaking graphics

The exhibition places particular emphasis on graphic design, a field which naturally attracted immigrants schooled in the language of European modernism. The sector was also popular because it offered more commercial opportunities and a solid source of income.

Among the most recognizable exhibits are London Transport's bus stops by Hans Schleger, the City of Westminster signs by Misha Black and classic posters for London Underground, the General Post Office and the War Office. A more surprising inclusion is Raleigh's 'Chopper' bike, a cult item and beloved icon of British product design.

"It was created by Tom Karen, who grew up in the former Czechoslovakia, had his childhood interrupted by the war and arrived in Britain as the war was still going on," Rosenthal said.

"He was interested in what made children tick, and this bike made them feel they were on a motorcycle, thanks to details like the suspension and gear stick."

Another item of note is the "Four Hands" poster, designed by FHK Henrion in 1944. Commissioned to be distributed on D-day, it shows four hands, representing each of the Allies, ripping up a swastika.

"Henrion arrived in Britain as a refugee from Nazi Germany and was immediately interned on arrival as an enemy alien -- as so many German Jews were at the time," said Rosenthal. "He was freed on the Isle of Man after the Ministry of Information realized he'd be a more useful contributor to the war effort as a poster designer than in internment."

The exhibition, according to Rosenthal, is the first to focus on the contributions of immigrants to British design. It is the result of a year spent scanning archives and collections across the UK: "There was an untold story to tell," she said.

"Cultural institutions have a responsibility to educate the public about their own history and inform around topical issues, to make that history relevant to the present day."

"Designs on Britain" is on at the Jewish Museum in London until April 15, 2018