Abram Games lived a fascinating life and left behind an exceptional body of work across various disciplines of design, making the exhibition ‘Designing the 20th Century: Life and Work of Abram Games’ (Jewish Museum London, 8 September 2014–18 January 2015) a must see for anyone interested in graphic design. Seeing original prints of his best known work is an absolute joy, while the biographical and personal information really adds depth. Yet what I found most engaging about the exhibition was considering Games’ position in the development of ‘graphic design’ as a discipline on the whole, and how his personality contributed to this.
When enlisting to serve in World War Two, Games listed his profession as ‘poster artist’, giving him semantically more in common with the commercial artists that proceeded him, than the graphic design studios that would emerge later on in his career. Games’ work can be seen as a stepping stone in the evolution of the job title ‘commercial artist’ into that of ‘graphic designer’, a change that occurred during his lifetime. He drew inspiration from the styles and philosophies developed in early 20th century modernism and avant-garde art, but was in no way slavishly committed to any one manifesto. A single minded approach demonstrated by his decision to leave art college after less than a year. His work was very much his own, he wasn’t interested in being told what to do, and as such he was free to develop his own principles about how the designer should work. He loved the forward thinking ideas of modernist design — as seen in his personal maxim “maximum meaning, minimum means” — yet also showed the conviction to use surreal and expressive imagery to inject wit into his work. In this way he remained free to develop his own principles about how the designer should work.
Games, for example, eschewed traditional notions of ultra-literal representation in illustration. Nor was he tied to the modernist idea of pure abstraction. In his ‘Grow Your Own Food poster’ (1942) a spade morphs into a ship. In a Financial Times advertisment (1951) a newspaper mutates into a businessman’s legs. Elsewhere we see arms holding bunting emerge from the points of a star, the hook of an umbrella forms a letter J, the London Underground roundel is a tiger’s stripe and an envelope becomes both the letters A and M. This kind of dual imagery, the two-in-one visual idea, is of course familiar to modern audiences. But in the 1940s and ‘50s his was an extremely innovative approach. For a public more accustomed to basic and literal communication —direct messages, representational imagery and laboured copy — Games’ graphic intelligence was both arresting and memorable. Paired with his immense technical skill, this duality helped to set Games apart from many other British designers of the period. His work had an exceptional combination of both style and substance.
These witty visual ideas were the result of individual moments of genius, determined toil and ruthless editing. He always worked alone, presenting his ideas in the first instance to family members. On principle, any thumbnail sketches that were not immediately understand were ditched. Having worked on the options in private, Games then presented his client with a single finished result. Multiple options were not on offer. The client had to decide; go with Games or find someone else.
While this sort of attitude marked him out as a design purist, it also reveals a stubbornness in Games. He was similarly stubborn in his preferred use of the airbrush, a technique in which he excelled but which by the late ‘50s was beginning to become passé. Evidently he did adapt, moving towards a flatter, graphic approach more in keeping with the times (as seen in his 1959 BOAC poster). Yet he persisted in drafting his own illustrations, shunning the use of photographic imagery (despite many examples in the exhibition of his accomplished reference photography). Games also continued to draw all his lettering by hand rather than using off-the-shelf typography. This 1992 film of Abram talking with fellow designer F.H.K Henrion (Anglia TV) really helps to illustrate his viewpoints and principles:
It is particularly interesting to consider Games in relation to Henrion. Their careers began in a similar style at roughly the same time. Clearly from the footage and from other sources we learn that they were both friends and rivals. On one occasion Games apparently poked fun at Henrion’s skill with an airbrush, and in the video he implies that he considered Henrions techniques to be ‘cheating’. Fifty years after they met, it seems that Games retained an air of supreme confidence. Perhaps their differences of opinion and working method took root during the war years, when each chose a different path? Whereas by 1944 Henrion was the lead of a London-based team of 15 designers working on American propaganda posters, Games, as revealed in the exhibition, worked alone in an attic of the British War Office. Post war, moreover, Games continued working alone as a freelance, in a studio in his North London family home, while Henrion went on to run a corporate design studio.
Abram Games was in fact a veritable one man multi-disciplinary design studio. The exhibition shows the vast range of his abilities, beyond poster design. Most notably, Games’ work for the BBC resulted in what may have been the worlds first animated television logo/ident, while his product design for Cona Coffee suggests that he may have become a specialised industrial designer had he taken a different path. Despite his loyalty to traditional and hand drawn methods of working in graphic art, Games was actually fascinated by technology. For years he worked on developing a unique handheld, non-electric copying system, the result of which is on show in the exhibition.
The aforementioned F.H.K Henrion’s career trajectory hints at the direction graphic design was taking by the 1960's, slowly evolving into a slicker, more corporate and commercial affair. From the exhibition it is clear to see that although Games was not adverse to corporate work, he only worked for something he believed in, and especially relished working for causes close to his heart, such as Jewish charities and the young emerging state of Israel, for whom he designed stamps and posters. I expect his own solitary way of working, his perfectionism and total control over every aspect of his work meant the idea of having a studio of underlings probably never crossed his mind. Leaving him free to pick the jobs that he wanted to pursue.
It’s the rich and fascinating personal details about Abram Games and his life that help us to better understand his career as a designer. The person behind the designs can be easily forgotten when looking at important 20th century designers, especially on the hugely image driven internet. ‘Designing the 20th Century: Life and Work of Abram Games’ makes sure that the man behind the designs is known. The exhibition, which was greatly assisted by Games’ children (all the work shown is from their archives), introduces the public to Games the man. We see his beginnings, as a child of immigrant parents, grow and develop as an artist, to create some of the most iconic and important design work of the 20th century. This personal and biographical detail creates an engaging and moving exhibition. It is not possible to seperate Games from his work. This exhibition introduces us not only to the design purist, the supremely confident and self-relient creative but also the strong principled and stubborn family man, and it is all the better for it.
‘Designing the 20th Century: Life and Work of Abram Games’ is on at the Jewish Museum in Camden, London until 18 January 2015. http://www.jewishmuseum.org.uk/abramgames
All images © Estate of Abram Games.