Study at St Martins and Royal College of Art
At St Martin’s and later at the RCA, where we were fellow students, Romek spent time drawing and said he regarded it as an important exercise in observation, a visual notebook, which later stood him in good stead. As a freelance designer he soon had a wide range of work, from quickly done bold red-and-black covers for The Economist, New Society, Town and Queen magazines, to the first art editor of The Observer’s colour magazine, and then on to his green covers for Penguin’s Crime series paperbacks. Graphically he was very resourceful, using his own photographs or hand-drawn images or plain graphics or a mixture of all three. Beside his abstract shapes or apparent scribbles, Romek could draw trees, people, hands, faces or eyes boldly and skilfully. All his work was highly intelligent and original, as intense latterly as was his love of the country and of life itself.
Artist and designer and friend
Before Art School
After the war Romek Marber arrived to Britain in 1946 and he 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”. Romek contracted Tuberculosis and for nearly two years was in a TB sanitarium in Davos, Switzerland. Here he began to sketch and paint.
St. Martin’s School of Art
Eventually, in about 1949, Marber joined an evening class in drawing and painting at St. Martin’s School of Art and befriended two members of staff, Roger Nicholson (who with his brother Robert later became a client with Cunic office partition system and Nicholson’s Publishing) and Walter Hoyle who, although a similar age to himself, had already graduated from the Royal College of Art. Marber’s strong desire to study painting was equalled by an urgent need to secure income. With the support of 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, Marber succeeded in receiving the grant that allowed him to register for a course in Commercial Art at St Martin’s School of Art.
Royal College of Art (ARCA)
On successful completion of the St Martins course, in 1953, Marber then secured a place to study Graphic Design at the Royal College of Art under Professor Richard Guyatt. At the entrance examination he sat next to Alan Fletcher who became a lifelong friend. 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. I worked mainly with drawing, simplifying them into symbolic images. I acquired a sympathy for different paints and media, and how to use them. For me everything was quite new. At the Royal College I had to pursue photography myself because I couldn’t get adequate use of their limited facilities. One can do so much by manuipulating a photograph but I wasn’t able to do this as a student.”
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 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. Herbert Spencer was a distinguished typographer and editor of the highly influential journal Typographica – this, and Spencer’s own designs, had a profound effect on post-war design and designers. Marber’s period in the studio also gave him the confidence to try and establish an independent practice – which he did in 1957.
“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, it was all typographical. It was not work that I ever thought I would be doing, but I was interested in how it was done. It was very formal and one didn’t have to think about images. Only working on Typographica was different. I learnt a lot, simple things, but very very important things, like the subtleties in typography such as type forms and spacing, the ‘colour’ of the type: how the spacing of the lines would create a lighter or darker block of text and the rational of typography. It was not taught at St Martin’s or the Royal College of Art.”
“It is almost 50 years to the day that ass a student at the Royal College of Art I sat in this very theatre attending a set of lectures by the Reader in Architecture at the RCA, Sergei Kadleigh, on Symmetry and Proportions. I was interested in the subject. The lectures were to be published by the Lion & Unicorn Press and I was asked to design the book. In my second year I spent a lot of time working on the book but the project was abandoned when Sergei Kadleigh moved to Brazil. Here I am 50 years on taking to you about Penguin Crime covers, having applied proportional relationship to the design of the grid.” Romek Marber speaking at the Penguin by Designers Study Day at the V&A 18 June 2005 organised by the Penguin Collectors Society.
“When I was at the Royal College, posters were the ultimate commercial commission for a graphic designer.”
Marber’s slide unfortunately cropped off the full cover text