Designing the 20th Century: Life and Work of Abram Games

  • graphic design
  • art
  • photography
  • drawing & prints
  • painting
  • design
  • holocaust
  • decorative arts
  • social history
  • history
  • cultural history
  • post war history

A major exhibition about the life and work of celebrated designer Abram Games. Games was the foremost graphic designer of the postwar years and during his 60 year career was awarded numerous prestigious public commissions, including being appointed Official War Poster Artist during World War Two and designing the first animated BBC ident. In addition, he designed the emblem for the Festival of Britain and the stamp for the 1948 Olympic Games. He worked extensively with London Transport and his 1976 poster for London Zoo was recently chosen by Londoners as their second favourite poster for London Underground. In 2014 Royal Mail elected Games, along with nine other distinguished subjects born in 1914, including Dylan Thomas, to adorn a stamp for its ‘Remarkable Lives’ series. Games also worked with commercial clients, including Shell, Guinness, The Times and The Financial Times.

Designing the 20th Century: Life and Work of Abram Games will explore Games’s artistic process and feature over 100 objects, charting his career from his earliest artistic experiments through to his most celebrated commissions. The exhibition, which coincides with the centenary of Games’s birth, will include original posters, paintings and preparatory sketches, all of which exhibit the bold, arresting style for which he is known. These widely recognisable designs convey a vigour, dynamism and sense of humour that at the outset of Games’s career stood in stark contrast to the limitations of austerity Britain. Games’s skills as a draughtsman, his ability to synchronise texts and visuals, and his flair for colour will be brought into sharp focus.

Games’s family was hugely influential in developing his career as a designer and the exhibition will explore these relationships through archive objects and photographs. His father was a photographer working in the East End of London, meaning Games had access to materials and training from an early age. Most crucially, his father introduced him to the airbrush, which became a principal stylistic method for Games, although he was reluctant to use photography in his work. The 1918 airbrush that Joseph Games passed down to his son will be on display in the exhibition alongside paintings by Games of family members, a little known aspect of his artistic output.

Although Games worked repeatedly with commercial companies, also including BP and British European Airways, his major design achievements stemmed from the public commissions he was granted in the 1940s and ’50s, which awarded him a critical role in forming and framing British cultural identity. After enlisting to serve as a private in War World Two he was relieved from active duty and appointed Official War Poster Artist, designing more than 100 posters over the course of the conflict. Games’s war posters included the popular but controversial ‘Join the ATS’ recruiting poster (1941), whose alluring female subject earned it the nickname ‘Blonde Bombshell’ and the condemnation of the House of Commons. A logbook noting all of Games’s wartime commissions will accompany the wartime posters.

By the 1950s, Games was the leading designer working in Britain and had carried out commissions for the General Post Office, the BBC and London Transport, for whom he produced over 16 posters in the period 1937 – 1976. Some of Games’s best-known works, examples of which will be on display in the exhibition, come from the postwar period. In 1948, Games was commissioned by the General Post Office to design the official third Olympic Games stamp. In 1951 he was awarded the commission to design the emblem for the Festival of Britain, one of the most significant designs of his career. In 1953 he designed the first animated ident for the then infant BBC. The ident involved mechanical as well as artistic expertise – a new technical challenge for Games. The exhibition will explain his processes in detail, showing preparatory sketches alongside a film of the working model.

Born to Jewish émigré parents, Games had a strong sense of Jewish identity that informed his work, particularly during the war. He was among the first at the War Office to see footage of Nazi atrocities in the Belsen Concentration Camp. This experience had a profound effect on him, both personally and professionally. He joined the Jewish Relief Unit where he trained volunteers and designed the badge and three haunting posters appealing for aid. Throughout his career he produced a huge number of designs for Jewish organisations, usually on a pro bono basis, once stating, ‘I feel intensely Jewish. It has contributed to the character of my work’.