Born in 1925, into a tight-knit Jewish family, Romek Marber had an elder brother and twin sister – together they lived in Turek, Poland. One day, outside the town’s only radio store, this idyllic childhood came to a halt. Marber describes the tension caused by a speech that was broadcast through the shop’s tinny loudspeaker hung above its front door: “Suddenly the screeching noise stopped. The excitement in the crowd grew. A powerful German voice replaced the martial music, Hitler was speaking. Poor reception and high amplification distorted the sound. The voice and rhetoric sounded threatening…Everybody was listening intently, hypnotized by the voice and the pervading mood”.
Not long after this broadcast, fourteen-year-old Marber was roused by the din of horse-drawn artillery rattling over the town’s cobblestone streets along with columns of marching infantry looking tired and disorganized. The Germans occupied Poland in September 1939 when the family tried to escape by fleeing to Warsaw where they were cut off by the Nazi siege of the city. Marber’s father, who was on the Gestapo wanted list, escaped with his elder brother, believing that women and children would be safe back in Poland. Not long after, Marber, his twin sister, mother and grandparents were transported to the Bochnia Ghetto. One day, when ordered away from the Ghetto on forced labour, Marber returned to discover his family had been transported to the Belzek concentration camp where they were murdered.
Romek Marber aged 16 in a carpentry workshop in the Bochnia Ghetto, Poland c.1941. Click to enlarge
Now alone he acquired, in July 1943, a forged Aryan Identity Card, the new name of Roman Piela, and an escape route into Hungary. His guide turned out to be a Nazi collaborator who handed Marber over to the Gestapo. Under SS guard he was marched through the streets of Krakow to Plaszow concentration camp (which was the subject of Steven Spielberg’s 1993 film Schindler’s List), then on to Auschwitz and finally to Flossenburg and Plattling in Bavaria, Germany where he was eventually liberated by American soldiers on 28 April 1945.
On regaining his liberty, Marber resolved to escape Germany – for him “To remain in Germany was a depressing thought”. His first attempt to reach Switzerland ended in arrest at the border and a prompt return to Germany. This was followed by a trek through dramatic, alpine landscape into Italy where he ended up in a Displaced Persons Camp in Modena. Marber has said of this period in Italy: “If I had been able to select a country to stay in I could not have made a better choice. The country, the people, the cities and small towns, the art, the climate and the sea, all conspired to persuade me that there could be a better life”. For over a year he stayed in Italy travelling on the roofs of trains, transversing the country from the north to the south – just looking and observing with an eye that was now free to roam.
After finding out that his father and brother were in London, Marber obtained a permit to join them in 1946. On leaving Italy for London, a friend advised him that, most likely, it would be raining in England – on arrival at Victoria station Marber was not to be disappointed; it was raining. In the years after liberation he had cultivated a rosy impression of the England in which he now set foot – a Victorious Country, a European State that had won the war and resisted occupation. Instead, the bleakness and austerity came as a surprise – parts of London had been demolished by bombing, there were ration cards and clothing coupons, the streets were badly lit and shop windows had no lights after 7pm. This ordered society, struggling to get back on its feet in gloomy conditions, was in stark contrast to the anarchy of Italian life played out under clear blue skies. Finding the means to provide an income was now Marber’s priority. He did odd jobs, got work in a clothing factory assisting the van drivers to deliver clothing, collecting bales of cloth and keeping the floor clear of discarded cuttings. He also swept the floor of an office occupied by a rather attractive young Belgian woman, who turned out to be the company’s dress designer. They struck up a friendship of which Marber recollects: “In spite of my inferior status she would engage me in conversation, curious about my past, and I would talk about Italy. She suggested that as I was interested in Art I should enrol for evening classes either in History of Art or Painting. This suggestion appealed to me for at school in Poland I had been considered good at drawing so Painting would be my preferred choice”. However, continuing health problems caused him to put this decision on hold.
Eventually, in about 1949, Marber joined an evening class in drawing and painting at the St. Martin’s School of Art where many Royal Academicians were teaching. During this time he also befriended two members of staff, Roger Nicholson and Walter Hoyle who, although a similar age to himself, had already graduated from the Royal College of Art. His strong desire to study painting was equalled by an urgent need to secure income. With the support of Walter Hoyle, Marber applied to the Committee for the Education of Poles in Great Britain for an educational grant but, at interview, was informed these were only awarded for applied subjects. Just as his dream to study painting seemed to evaporate a casual remark from a well-disposed member of the committee suggested that Marber might consider applying for a course in Commercial Art. His response to this invitation was typically pragmatic: “I had no idea what Commercial Art was but as its title contained ‘Art’ my ambition was modified.” Consequently, he succeeded in receiving the grant that in 1950 allowed him to register for a course in Commercial Art at St Martin’s School of Art, where he already knew some of the teachers (having met them when attending evening classes and then assisting, for example, Roger Nicholson in the design of decorations to celebrate the Queen’s coronation in 1953). It was also at St Martin’s that Marber met his future wife, Sheila Perry (who would also become a graphic designer).
On successful completion of the course, in 1953, Marber then secured a place to study Graphic Design at the Royal College of Art under Professor Richard Guyatt. He thrived in the course’s open structure where there was no division between design and illustration – students shared the same studio, had the same teachers and worked on the same projects. In this environment Marber’s creative range expanded to absorb any technique or process – type, drawing or photography – whichever was the most effective in conveying an idea. As his command of materials grew, so did the focus of his intentions sharpen: “My interest in becoming a painter waned in favour of design. I learned to use my skills not to produce a picture but to interpret an elusive thought, an idea”. In his final year at the Royal College of Art Marber’s external examiner was the designer Ashley Havinden. Much to his own surprise, Marber refused Havinden’s generous offer of a very well-paid post at the Crawford’s Advertising Agency reasoning that he “wouldn’t be of much use in advertising”.
Not long after this, a fellow student at the College, Alan Fletcher, was leaving his post as assistant to Herbert Spencer for a scholarship at Yale University and recommended Marber to replace him. Spencer was a distinguished typographer and editor of the highly influential journal Typographica– this, and Spencer’s own typography and designs, had a profound effect on post-war design and designers.
Working as Spencer’s assistant, Marber gained valuable, first-hand, professional experience which expanded his technical skills, bridging a gap that had not been covered by his degree studies. Of this time he recalled: “I learnt a lot from Herbert, it was immediately after leaving college and every student should know how to prepare specifications for how a job goes to the printer. I never learnt this at college and it’s very important. He was producing a lot of work for London Transport: timetables, advertisements, all typographical. It was not work that I ever thought I would be doing, but I was interested in how it was done. One didn’t have to think about images. Only working on Typographica was different. I learnt a lot, simple things, but very important things like the subtleties of type.”
Marber’s period in the studio also gave him the confidence to try and establish an independent practice – which he did in 1957, moving from a bedsit in Notting Hill to a flat in Harley Street. A year later, needing more space as his practice took off, he rented the flat below as well. It was an ideal base, as Marber observed, “Harley Street was a lovely spot to live in, it was so central to all my clients.”
This coincided with the emergence of a post-war economy that set out to bury the bleak austerity of ration cards and clothing coupons by championing a new, modern, approach to design. Against this backdrop of growing affluence and social change Marber’s professional career began to take off and, after 1958, he attracted important commissions. One such project came through Roger Nicholson’s brother, Robert Nicholson who had just designed an office partition system called Cunic. Marber was called in to provide branding designs that would endow the product with a strong sense of identity, modernity and quality.
Over the next decade he built on the considerable success generated by this early commission and, in the 1970s, when Robert Nicholson embarked on a new publishing venture of Guides to London, Marber became consultant designer to Robert Nicholson Publications. In 1960, newly appointed art director Peter Dunbar commissioned Marber to design covers for The Economist magazine. Up to this point The Economist covers had been comprised of text but no images. The cheap newsprint paper, coarse letterpress halftones and two-colour printing (in red and black) gave Marber’s bold images an immediacy that had physical presence and visual force. His characteristically clear, bold, graphics also seemed to reflect the social, political and economic upheavals of 1960.
Marber retained fond recollections of these days: “I lived within a short walking distance of The Economist office and would turn up at about 11am. While waiting for the editorial decision on what story would feature on the week’s cover I would have a drink. Sometimes the wait for an editorial decision could be prolonged in which case we would go for lunch, usually to ‘The French’, a pub in Soho, hoping that on our return the cover feature story would have been decided. I would then make a quick sketch of what I proposed to do. By then it was getting late, and I would rush back to the studio to carry out the design. The artwork had to be at the printers by 9am the next morning. I liked the speed, there was no time for second thoughts, and I liked the lively atmosphere of The Economist art department, the days there were always stimulating.”
Marber’s compelling visual representations of major global issues (ranging across the Kennedy-Khrushchev crisis to apartheid in South Africa) created a backdrop for the sixties. To have such work published in a serious paper like The Economist, with a wide national and international distribution network, was also the best advertisement any designer could have for their own work. Consequently, it was not long before it caught the attention of Richard Hollis who commissioned Marber to design covers for New Society throughout a time of continuing ferment in Britain. Marber’s skill in making compelling images that communicated important social and political issues served to attract new commissions. These included, for example, illustrations for Queen and Town magazines (being art-directed, respectively, by Tom Wolsey and Dennis Bailey). One such illustration, for Queen, titled The Struggle for Sicily, also pointed to a new genre of crime imagery that Marber would create for Penguin.
One day a young secretary in The Economist art department took a phone call from someone at Penguin Books who wanted to contact the designer of their recent covers. Marber recounts how she then contacted him to apologise for an oversight: “Anna, the secretary at the art department, telephoned to forewarn me that she had given out my phone number without my consent. I asked for the name of the caller but she was not able to provide it. All she said was, ‘He speaks with a strong foreign accent but his accent is not as bad as yours’”. The anonymous foreign caller turned out to be Germano Facetti – the newly appointed art director of Penguin Books.
After an open competition, Facetti selected Marber to design a new series of covers for the Penguin Crime series to coincide with Penguin Books’ Silver Jubilee, in 1960. This came at a time when competition between publishing houses was increasing. So, in response, Penguin decided to modernize the long-standing (but tired) graphic traditions established for its covers. Marber’s new designs were an immediate popular success and widely acclaimed. In 1964 Marber was appointed the founding art director of The Observer colour supplement. Here he established a vibrant new format that pulsed with images of contemporary life. These included features on the Germans, the London fashion scene, the Indonesian military regime, Picasso, Slavery, the Blacks, Thalidomide, the British class system, and many other stories.
Throughout the 1960s his range of work expanded to include film titles. For example, in 1965, Marber created a compelling trailer for Peter Watkins’s docudrama The War Game – a film considered so powerful as to be banned from public broadcast until its first re-screening in 1985 by the BBC. Throughout the 1970s his portfolio of work continued to grow incorporating a wide range of prestigious clients and graphic outputs. Often the raw material of such commissions comprised ordinary objects or everyday ephemera such as fence wire, light bulbs or street maps. No matter how humble such materials might have seemed Marber was able to endow them with a lifetime’s experience, and an acute visual sensibility, that transformed each into an image of delicate and compelling beauty.
Marber’s achievements were celebrated in major retrospective exhibitions at The Minories Galleries, Colchester in 2013 and at Brighton University in 2014, the latter with an accompanying catalogue, Romek Marber Graphics. In 2010, Marber’s personal account of the Holocaust and his early life, No Return, was published. Marber wrote in the book that he found the thought of visiting his homeland “disturbing”, and that “however much I long to see Poland, I couldn’t go back”. Nonetheless, in 2015, when the first exhibition in Poland of Marber’s graphic designs opened at the Galicia Jewish Museum in Krakow, he found enough resolve to attend the private view in person, travelling there with his partner of many years, the designer Orna Frommer-Dawson, who designed the exhibition. This was the first time that Marber had set foot in the country since 1945.
Marber’s extraordinary life saw him through times of unprecedented change that, on the one hand, conspired to radically alter the face of Europe and, on the other, saw iPads replace sketchbooks. Yet, throughout all of this, his work retained a clarity of vision and an integrity of purpose that endures. It was remarkable that, after such experiences, Marber sustained a continuing wonder at the beauty inherent in modern industrial life where nothing, no matter how humble, should be taken for granted. In this respect Romek Marber’s graphic designs throughout the 1960s and 70s made a significant contribution to Britain’s enviable place at the heart of a global design community. Accordingly, his work is now permanently conserved in the Design Archive of the Victoria and Albert Museum in London and in the Archive of the Design Museum in London.
Emeritus Professor and friend
London Circle of Designers, 1960s
An interesting and characterful illustration of designers (no women!) working in London during the early 1960s, many of whom became Romek’s lifelong friends, as well as colleagues.
London Circle of Designers, 1960s. Collage by Alan Fletcher of individual designer self-portraits. Back row, from left: 1. Bob Brooks 2. Colin Forbes 3. Germano Facetti 4. Peter Wildbur 5. Theo Crosby 6. F.H.K Henrion 7. Barry Trengove 8. David Collins 9. Alan Fletcher 10. Abram Games 11. Ray Hawkey 12. George Daulby 13. Peter Paul Piech 14. George Mayhew 15. Ken Garland 16. Robert Brownjohn 17. Herbert Spencer 18. Frank Camardella 19. Colin Millward; front row: 20. Sidney King 21. Eric Ayres 22. Romek Marber 23. Mark Boxer 24. Lou Klein 25. Derek Birdsall 26. John Sewell 27. Ian Bradbury 28. Gordon Moore 29. Dennis Bailey 30. Bob Gill 31. Malcolm Hart
Romek embraced everything he did with passion: cycling, carpentry, his love of the countryside and nature, good food and good company under his apple trees. Romek believed we should live and let live. As a student, and later as a designer and educator, Romek maintained the same modesty, generosity and good humour. Friendships he formed lasted a lifetime. He was incredibly loyal and enjoyed their camaraderie – either meeting for drinks and parties, or as a host – his house was open to all. This selection of photos captures the warmth and passions of his life.