From Tate & Lyle, C&A and John Lewis to Raleigh’s “Chopper” bike, Penguin books and bus seat fabrics, all are instantly recognisable through their distinctive brands and logos.

Yet for all their familiarity, the stories of the Jewish immigrants behind these iconic designs are less well-known.

Now a new exhibition at the Jewish Museum is shedding light on the “staggering effect” these émigré designers had in changing the way large companies sold their products and, ultimately, in helping Britain’s post-war manufacturing boom.

Showcasing the work of 18 designers, the space is filled with more than 150 exhibits, largely on loan from the University of Brighton Design Archives.

Among them is a short film featuring the Czechoslovakian-born designer Dorrit Dekk, who after moving to the UK in 1938, served as a secret “listener” at Bletchley Park and went on to an illustrious career with the Orient Line (later P&O), the Post Office Savings Bank, Penguin, Tatler and London Transport.

One of her most famous posters, “Coughs and Sneezes, spread diseases”, designed for the Central Office of Information in the 1950s, is still fondly remembered today.

Trained at a prestigious art school in Vienna, her talent would have counted for nothing, had she stayed in Austria. 

The 1970s Raleigh Chopper bicycle designed by Tom Karen

The 1970s Raleigh Chopper bicycle designed by Tom Karen

As she reflects in the film, she had designed the set for A Midsummer Night’s Dream, but when she went along to the theatre for the opening night, she found a note at the entrance: “Jews not allowed.”

While Dekk escaped before the war, her contemporary Romek Marber was sent to the Bochnia Ghetto in Poland.

Saved from being transported to the Belzec death camp, Marber finally arrived in Britain in 1946. After studying at St Martin’s School of Art and later the Royal College of Art, he soon became a force to be reckoned with at Penguin books.

As curator Joanne Rosenthal explains: “His influence in book design was immeasurable. He came up with this geometric, prescriptive grid showing how book covers should be designed, and was originally intended for the Penguin crime series only, but it worked so well that it was rolled out across all their paperbacks.”

Walk when you can poster by Jan Le Witt and George Him

Walk when you can poster by Jan Le Witt and George Him

Another leading light of the design world was the German-born designer FHK Henrion, who studied poster design in Paris, before arriving in England in 1936.

During the war, he was interned as an enemy alien on the Isle of Man, but released after the Artists’ Refugee Council persuaded the government that his talents could be used to help the war effort.

One of his most iconic posters, Four Hands, produced in 1944, show representations of Britain, France, America and Russia grabbing a swastika and tearing it apart.

But it was as much his post-war creations for the likes of the National Theatre, C&A and Tate & Lyle that would secure him a place in design history.

German-born designer FHK Henrion and his designs for Tate & Lyle

German-born designer FHK Henrion and his designs for Tate & Lyle

“His influence on British society was massive,” adds Rosenthal. “He was in many ways a pioneer of corporate identity and design, and his logo for Tate & Lyle is as close to perfection as you can get. The letters are formed from sugar cubes, perfectly stripped down. The logo is instantly recognisable and still used today.”

An entertainment card designed by Dorrit Dekk

An entertainment card designed by Dorrit Dekk

Many would also recognise the work of German-born designer Hans Schleger, who moved to the UK in 1932. His modernised bus stop signs remain largely unchanged today, while John Lewis, Penguin Books and Mac Fisheries can all thank him for their iconic logos.

He was appointed a royal designer for industry in 1959, but his distinguished status was not always apparent. An advertising poster for Shell, designed in 1938, is signed with Schleger’s pseudonym, Zero.

“It was a wry comment on the status of the graphic designer at that time,” adds Rosenthal.

“But this exhibition spans the period of time where that begins to change radically and the divisions between fine art and graphic design start to collapse.

“The timing of all this was critical. Many of these Jewish immigrants were trained at prestigious, avant garde schools in Germany and Austria, and they came over here at a time when the state was becoming more interested in using visual media for propaganda and raising
public morale.

“The skills and talent they brought really had quite an amazing effect on design in Britain.”

Designs on Britain runs at the Jewish Museum London until 15 April 2018. Details: jewishmuseum.org.uk