Remembering Romek Marber: “a thinking graphic designer”

We look back at the life of Polish graphic designer Romek Marber, who was a “heavyweight” of London’s design scene from the 1960s onwards.

“If people want to put things in place, in terms of design in Britain, you’d include Romek,” David Pocknell says of Romek Marber. “He was a heavyweight.”

Marber, the graphic designer best known for his Penguin Crime covers, can be counted among the UK’s most influential designers from the 1960s onwards, working in editorial, commercial and typographic design. “He ranks with all the people who practised in the period,” Pocknell, his friend and collaborator, adds.

“A very determined man”

One of Marbek’s Penguin Crime cover, courtesy of Flickr user jonathan 229

Marber, who died last month at the age of 94, took an unusual pathway into design. He was born in Poland in 1925, the son of textile factory manager father and a mother who worked in children’s charities. Following the far-right political uprising, the Jewish family tried to escape in 1939 but were unsuccessful. Marber’s father and elder brother managed to escape the country, but Marber remained in Poland with his twin sister and mother. One day, after a period of forced labour, Marber returned to find his mother and sister had been moved to a concentration camp, where they were murdered.

Determined to escape, Marber hired a guide and acquired forged documents to escape. But the guide would turn out to be a Nazi collaborator, and Marber was transferred to various concentration camps, until he was freed by US soldiers in 1945. While he had planned to travel to Palestine, Marber heard that his remaining family was alive in London and changed his plans instead. In London in 1950, Marber studied commercial art at Saint Martin’s School of Art and then graphic design at the Royal College of Art in 1953.

“He’d been through the mill,” Pocknell says. “But he was a very determined man, and everything he did was right and fastidious.” Pocknell knew Marber as part of the “coterie” of London designers based in and among the Royal College of Art and design hotspots like Tottenham Court Road. Marber counted as his contemporaries Derek Birdsall, George Daulby and George Mayhew.

He was also friends with the Nicholson brothers, Roger and Robert, both designers and artists. Marber came to work on Nicholson’s London Guides and the branding for Cunic (Robert Nicholson’s system for designing offices) on which Pocknell helped him. “His use of grids” when designing the identity were “incredible”, Pocknell recalls.

Pocknell says that while they were aware of Marber’s past, the extent of his hardship was only revealed after the designer’s book, No Return: Journeys in the Holocaust was published in 2010. In this he recounted his personal history, and life as a Polish émigré. The Jewish Museum in London featured Marber as a designer in its 2017 exhibition, Designs on Britain.

“Clean, crisp and Swiss”

Image courtesy of Flickr user John Lord

Pocknell calls his style “clean, crisp and Swiss”: “It was Helvetica, and lovely, and well-considered thoughtful work.” Throughout the 1960s, he designed covers for The Economist magazine providing a taste for editorial design. In 1964, he became the first art director of the Observer newspaper’s supplement.

Marber found creative success (and a proliferation of work) in his partnership with Germano Facetti, the art director of Penguin books. It was here Marber would apply himself to the Penguin Crime series. For the book publishers, he would create what become known as the ‘Marber Grid’ – a design tool that ensured a consistent visual, in a now iconic green. This aimed to bring a clear aesthetic to the range but it also allowed a space for Marber to explore different techniques.

“He had ideas rather than just stylish content,” Pocknell says. “Intellectually he was on the button – a thinking graphic designer.” Marber also experimented with texture and different photographic techniques. When he later moved to Essex, Marber created a studio for himself in his garage, with a sophisticated photographic set up. In 2016, Marbek told Eye Magazine: “Design wasn’t such a clean profession that all one had to do was hit the keys of a keyboard. One had brushes, pens… One did things in a completely different way.”

His style earned him commissions but also a legacy. His work is archived in London’s V&A museum, and he was also given a retrospective at the Galicia Jewish Museum in Poland in 2015. The exhibition featured work including posters, maps, logos and typography. When he travelled to the opening, it was his first time back to Poland since 1945, and the museum says that “his cordiality, eloquence and sense of humour will remain in our memories forever.”

“He was never such a big shot that he couldn’t make time for anybody”

Image courtesy of Flickr user jonathan229

Pocknell says that Marber was often “incredibly busy”, which meant that he was earning a “huge amount of money”. He started his own practice in Harley Street in a duplex building, where he lived with his wife Sheila Parry. He also became ingrained in London life – contributing work for the Festival of Britain in 1951, as well as posters for institutions like the London Planetarium in Marylebone, which opened in 1958 (a copy of which Pocknell has in his office).

As well as his work on Penguin, The Economist and The Observer, he also became consultant head of graphic design at Hornsey College of Art in 1967, where he remained until 1988. Perry died in 1989, after Marber had retired to care for her.

At a time where Marber was becoming increasingly influential, he remained “extremely generous with his time”. “He was never such a big shot that he couldn’t make time for anybody,” Pocknell says.

He spent his final years in Braintree, Essex with his partner Orna who survives him. Pocknell, who lives close by, says Marbek bumped into him while shopping and says it was like nothing had changed. Pocknell describes him as “funny” but also one of the “calmest people” he knew. (He was also a “very considered dresser”, Pocknell remembers.)

Marber will be remembered for his memorable, sometimes “tough” designs, and the thought process behind each one. These thought processes visible in his much-loved covers; for a book called Boiled Alive, the title appears as boiling steam, for example.

Pocknell recalls how Marber always retained his accent, as well as peppering conversation with phrases such as ‘how do you say?’, indicative of the late designer’s diligence. “He’d stop halfway through a sentence and you’d think, how long is he going on? Everyone would be hanging on – and then he’d say: ‘ventriloquist’. He’d think for a good while before choosing and using the right word, and of course, he always did. It was terrific.”

The banner image is a portrait of Romek Marber, courtesy of Philip Sayer.

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  • mike dempsey April 30, 2020 at 11:04 am

    For me, there were two giants responsible for the intellectual cachet that made Penguin Books a permanent part of British graphic history. They were Jan Tschichold and Romek Marber. Yes, of course, there were key art directors and many individual designers over the years, but between Tschichold and Marber that special ‘look’ at two significant periods was created, and responsible for communicating that Penguin did not insult the intelligence of its readers. It was a publisher you could trust. Romek’s wonderful Penguin grid, still in this 21st century, looks fantastic.

    I first remember seeing Romek’s work in 1963 when I bought my first copy of the D&AD annual, back then a slim paperback affair all in glorious black and white. It was on those pages that I lusted after Romek’s poster for the ‘The Moving Earth’ at the London Planetarian, you can see it behind Romek in the photo featured.

    I met Romek for the first time at David Pockell’s house a year or so back. What struck me about this slim, elegant looking man was his quiet modesty, this is a quality I always admire in a person. American’s see it as a weakness, there you have to shout about your success from the rooftops. I have always viewed modesty as a strength. In the end, it is the work that should speak, not the individual. Romek Marber’s work still speaks volumes and lives on in dusty second-hand bookshops and on the shelves of millions of people’s homes around the world.

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