I’ve googled Romek Marber and found a gold mine. And, of course, I knew his work. I had seen it on bookshelves over many years, it’s instantly recognizable and probably embedded in the visual part of my brain, like a finger print with an instant ‘press red’ button with a message: ‘good design’.
A retrospective exhibition of Romek Marber’s graphics has just opened in The Minories, in Colchester, and will run until the 26th of October. The curator of the gallery, Kaavous Clayton says: “I was introduced to Romek Marber’s work by David Jury, (award wining graphic designer, author and course leader of MA Art at the Colchester Institute). At the time I didn’t realize that one of my favorite book covers of Romek Marber’s design was already standing on a bookshelf in my home for many years. It was The daughter of time crime novel. To me, his graphics are filled with time and space. They are icons of time, emotive of an era. They sit on our mind and on our conscience. Their message is clear, and they communicate so directly with a viewer. His graphics are in one way, humble and modest, and the same time have a gentle insistence that you cannot ignore.” Much like the author himself.
Romek Marber was born in Poland. When Germany invaded his home town, Turek, in 1939, he was only fourteen years old. Over the next six years of war he witnessed the total destruction of his community and the loss of his closest family murdered by the Nazis. He endured Bochnia Ghetto, Płaszów, Auschwitz, Flossenburg, and Plattling concentration camps and the death marches. After the war he spend a year in Italy arriving in Great Britain in 1946.
He has written No Return. Journeys in the Holocaust as he tells me, “only to tell what happened, to leave the memory of my family’s life in Poland, and to the memory of families with no one left alive to tell their story.”
In 2010, on the account of Romek Marber’s work shown in the exhibition Independent British Graphic Design in the Barbican, Rick Poynor, a writer and journalist has written Survivor exclusively for Eye magazine, in which he talks about Romek’s life in the context of his book, and his arrival in Britain in 1946. (www.eyemagazine.co.uk).
In 1950 Romek Marber started to study graphic design at St. Martin’s School of Art, and later at Royal College of Art. He was the first Art Director of The Observer magazine, designed Nicholson Guides to London, covers for The Economist and New Society, film credits for Columbia Pictures, The BBC and Secret Films, posters as well as design for various companies.
After seeing Romek’s cover designs for The Economist in 1961, Germano Facetti, a newly appointed Art Director of Penguin Books, commissioned him to design two Pelican book covers. Romek was then asked to come up with a proposal for a new design, for a series of Penguin Crime fiction covers. Thus the famous Marber grid was conceived. The grid, which divided the area into white and green, limited colours of green and black, unified typography and gave the series it’s particular style and visual impact. Romek counted 77 covers on his book shelf, of about 200 titles that he designed. As far as he remembers, no cover was rejected. The Marber grid was in use for Penguin Crime, Penguin Fiction and Pelicans (Penguin non-fiction arm) covers. The change in cover design provided an increase in work for Marber as well as for other freelance designers and illustrators.
Professor Bruce Brown, Vice Chancellor of Research, Brighton University writes in his introduction to the exhibition: “Throughout his professional career Romek Marber has continued to take time to support the development of young creative talent. In 1967 his appointment as Consultant Head of Department of Graphic Design at Hornsey College of Art (now Middlesex University), also coincided with a period of global student unrest. Subsequently, he worked to establish some of the UK’s first BA (Hons) degree courses in graphic design, and pioneered programmes in scientific and technical illustration. When he retired in 1989, as Professor Emeritus (…), Romek Marber left one of the UK’s most vibrant schools of graphic art and design.”
Steve Hare is a freelance author and journalist currently working on a part time PhD on a history of Penguin design. An extract from his work appears on the wall of the exhibition in The Minories. He writes: “In a 2004 feature for the graphic design journal Eye, Rick Poynor praised the ‘impeccable logic’ of Marber’s design. ‘It is based on a careful analysis of what needed to be retained and replaced. …Seen as a series, these emerge as one of the outstanding achievements of British book cover design’. Even today, half a century on, they have lost none of their power or appeal.”
When I finally got to meet Romek, at the dinner arranged by David Lock, I remember seeing the slight, unassuming, youthful, older man walking towards me, with a stunning, tall woman. “This is my partner, Orna.” Romek introduced us, “And now, Joasia, tell me about yourself…” he asked, genuinely curious eyes and optimistic smile, when all I wanted to know was his story, his Jewish-Polish roots, his life, escape from Bochnia Ghetto, his arrival in Britain in 1946. And what I mostly wanted to find out, was how is it possible to suffer so much, so young, loose his family and never see them again, and still later on, to have such a remarkable career, leave a legacy for generations of graphic designers, and still say to me: “Designing graphics? I had a job to do, so I did it. I happened to get interesting work. I was lucky.”
David Lock delayed setting up his own company, to work for Romek. He says: “Romek is a very special person and one of the first group of post war remarkable graphic designer talents, that include Alan Fletcher, the same generation of war survivors. He has an ability to take a book and encapsulate in a cover what that book is all about. No, it was not luck, it is a talent he has, to trust his own insights, his first thought, to synthesize a story into strong graphics. It was not luck, because Romek did it over and over again, and always managed to find a fresh solution. I was young then, on the learning curve, Romek did it instinctively, and that’s what I’ve learned from him; trust your first insights, don’t embroider the edges, if the message is right it doesn’t need embellishment. His ideas were always solid, he was ‘bloody impartial’ and had a very critical eye. He could see straight away when something wasn’t right. He was tough and fair. He was no ‘softy’, but the same time, a very ‘giving’ person, encouraging teacher. And when he said something, you listened, unless you were stupid. It was the last time I worked for somebody else, I learned to trust my own instincts, and went to set up my own company with Tor Pettersen (Lock/Pettersen Ltd).”
One of Romek’s closest friends present at the exhibition is Dennis Bailey, also from Royal College of Art, who began as assistant editor of Graphis magazine in Zurich, practised as both illustrator and graphic designer in Paris and London, and teaching at the Central School of Design and Chelsea College of Art.
He says: ”Romek and I first met back in the mid 1950s. We were both lodging in the same house in Notting Hill Gate (not such a trendy address back then), and became friends. I remember the first time I saw him, passing the open door to his room and seeing him kneeling on the floor arranging pieces of paper and lettering under a sheet of glass. I was curious to know what he was up to – he was designing a leaflet, he said. So, we realized, we both did the same thing. We were both trying to make a go of freelancing in graphic design and traded what few contacts we had. Romek had just graduated a year earlier from the RCA and I had just returned from a year in Zurich. Waking one morning to find my top floor room infected with lice alarmed, I ran down to my new friend on the first floor. He just laughed, it was nothing, he said, he could tell me how to deal with those sort of things. And he did. I was starting to know Romek and with his wife Sheila, we met up for meals (often Polish!), went on outings to the coast, made friends with others in the neighbourhood. He has stayed a very good friend and we have shared both work and pleasure over the years. When Nicola and I married we knew he had to be our best man.”
The Minories Gallery in Colchester was packed at the Private View with Romek’s old friends, the cream of British graphic design. They all came to see once more his work. I also noticed quite a lot of young students absorbed in studying the details of the Marber Grid.
Romek looked on. “Romek, you don’t look your age”, I said, knowing of his passion for daily bicycle trips. “It helps” he answered, looking at Orna. “And you have a stunning partner!” “I know, she is not only stunning, but also a stunning designer” he answered. “She is an exhibition and book designer and has designed this show, organized my work, and made the exhibition look great.”
“Romek, how did you come to exhibit at The Minories Gallery?”, I posed my last question. “I have lived near Colchester for many years. Many years ago I visited the Gallery to see the work of Edward Bawden and Eric Ravilious. About 18 month ago, I was approached by David Jury, Course Leader of the MA Course in Art and Design at Colchester School of Art proposing an exhibition of my work. Thanks to David, and to Kaavous Clayton, curator, and Lee Pugh, manager of the Gallery and not least the Colchester Institute and Art School for inviting me to exhibit. The Minories is a beautiful Gallery, I could not resist the offer.”