Elizabeth Friedlander: new exhibition champions unsung female designer who fled Nazi rule

The Ditchling Museum of Art + Craft’s latest show displays the Jewish designer’s work for the likes of Penguin and the Bauer Type Foundry for the first time. We speak to exhibition curator Katharine Meynell about her serendipitous connection to Friedlander and the importance of revealing “the name behind the art”.

Photo by Sam Moore

You may not have heard the name Elizabeth Friedlander before, but chances are you will have unknowingly come across her work at one point or another. The mid-20th century designer put her name to everything from book covers for publishers such as Penguin to her eponymous typeface Elizabeth, which has since been digitised and is still used all over the world.

Friedlander’s talents as a designer and typographer are the subject of a new exhibition at the Ditchling Museum of Art + Craft in East Sussex, where a selection of her work will be on display for the first time. One of the key aims of the exhibition is to reveal “the name behind the art”, according to the museum, and it includes many of the type designs, wood engravings, decorative book papers, maps and adverts created by the designer while she was living in London during the 1940s and 1950s.

The story of Friedlander’s design career begins, however, several decades earlier in Germany. Born in 1903 to an affluent Jewish family, in her early 20s Friedlander studied typography and calligraphy under the famous German designer Emil Rudolph Weiss at the Berlin Academy. After finishing her studies, she went on to find work at luxury German magazine Die Dame, where she was largely doing hand-drawn titling.

During this period, Friedlander was also commissioned by the Bauer Type Foundry to create the Elizabeth typeface – one of her most significant works, and a highly unusual achievement for a woman at that time. The typeface’s original title was intended to be her traditional Jewish surname, but it was quickly changed to the anglicised version of her first name to avoid any confrontation with Adolf Hitler’s Nazi regime, which came into place as the type was being cast. The final version of Elizabeth was completed in 1939, by which time its creator had already fled to an equally turbulent Italy.

Photo by Sam Moore

When restrictive race laws came in under Italian prime minister Benito Mussolini in the late 1930s, Friedlander then managed to obtain a domestic servant visa to come to the UK, bringing very little with her other than a portfolio of her work and her mother’s 18th century Klotz violin. Shortly after arriving in London, Friedlander introduced herself to Francis Meynell – a poet, printer and at the time art director of Mather and Crowder (now Ogilvy) – who managed to find her work in advertising. It is also worth mentioning that Meynell happens to be the late grandfather of the exhibition’s curator, artist and author Katharine Meynell.

The idea for the exhibition came to her serendipitously, Meynell says, while she was working on a different project about typographers and the forgotten histories of women. “I was in the St Bride Library in London researching typographers, and by chance the person volunteering as the librarian that day happened to have a personal copy of a book by Pauline Paucker called New Borders: The Working Life of Elizabeth Friedlander,” she says. “I started reading it and remembered there were a couple of calligraphic anthologies in the back of my grandfather’s bookcase I’d not been able to identify the origin of. The penny dropped, and I became obsessed.”

Meynell originally decided to tell the story of Friedlander’s life and work in the form of a short film, which was released in 2016 and also features in one of the sections of the exhibition. “The film was more about knowing and not knowing someone – reading them through their work and trying to understand some of the social and political concerns of that time,” says Meynell. “When it came to the exhibition however, I just knew there was all this great stuff and it would be terrific to get it out there.”

Along with Friedlander’s designs for the likes of Thames & Hudson, The Times and her personal collection of Christmas cards for friends and colleagues, the exhibition also includes one of the designer’s slightly more mysterious commissions. As well as acquainting Friedlander with his friends in the world of advertising, Meynell had also introduced her to a man called Ellic Howe. An expert in psychological warfare and black propaganda, he was involved with the government’s Political Intelligence Office (PIO) during the war and decided to put Friedlander’s design skills to good use.

Photo by Sam Moore

Little is known about Friedlander’s involvement with the black propaganda unit. Artefacts on display in the exhibition such as a letter from the PIO indicating that she had resigned provide the tiny shreds of proof that she was even there in the first place. But what we do know is that she produced items such as as forged Nazi rubber stamps and ration books throughout the course of World War Two.

While commissions from bodies such as the PIO explain why Friedlander’s name stayed under-the-radar during the wartime period, the wealth of work she produced for high profile clients like Penguin for the two decades after it ended begs the question – why is she not better remembered in design circles today? The exhibition touches on the topical subject of the lack of female representation in both the design industry and the rest of society, an issue similarly highlighted by the London Transport Museum’s recent Poster Girl exhibition, which celebrated the work of unknown female poster designers from the last century.

Perhaps more significantly though, throughout the exhibition Meynell manages to skilfully unravel the complex tale of a talented designer, whose own story was very much intertwined with that of war-torn 20th Century Europe. “I want people visiting the exhibition to get the sense of Friedlander’s ability to navigate through a design world in a foreign country, her ability to think on her feet and to make it work,” she says. “She couldn’t have done that if she wasn’t so extraordinarily good.”

Elizabeth Friedlander runs until 29 April 2018 at the Ditchling Museum of Art + Craft, Lodge Hill Lane, Ditchling, Hassocks BN6 8SP. Entry costs £6.50 for adults, £5.50 for concessions and is free for under 16s. For more information, head here.

Photo by Sam Moore

Penguins Progress Eleven, 32pp publicity booklet & in-house magazine, pub 1950 [collection of Katharine Meynell]
Penguin Scores numbers 7, 6, 111 & 111, [1950; 1950; 1949; 1949]
Cover paper designs by Elizabeth Friedlander [collection of Katharine Meynell]
Libri Per Tutti, drawings for Mondadori, 1937 [The Friedlander Archive, UCC]
Working drawing for paper pattern, [c. 1950s] [The Friedlander Archive, UCC]
Woodcut for Christmas card, 1942 [The Friedlander Archive, UCC]

Hide Comments (2)Show Comments (2)
  • Mike Dempsey January 16, 2018 at 1:54 pm

    This looks like a beautifully put together show and full marks to Katharine Meynell for bringing our attention to Elizabeth Friedlander’s work, especially in this anniversary year of the women’s vote. Let’s hope more lost and forgotten female talents can be unearthed in 2018.

  • Nancy Stock-Allen March 29, 2018 at 4:44 pm

    If I had know earlier I would have booked a ticket over to see this…so many thanks for sharing!

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