Obituary: Abraham Games

Alan,Isabella Livingston
Wednesday 28 August 1996 23:02

Abram Games was one of this century's most inventive graphic designers. Throughout a remarkable career spanning over 60 years Games produced numerous posters as well as stamps, book jackets, and symbols including those for the Festival of Britain (1951), BBC Television (1952) and the Queen's Award to Industry (1965).

Many of his most enduring images were created when he worked as Official War Poster Designer, designing almost l00 posters during the Second World War.

Games' rather austere, almost puritanical demeanour belied a wry sense of humour. His gaunt, bird-like appearance somehow seemed appropriate to a designer whose work was essentially about paring down the message to its simplest and most powerful form. His objective was to achieve a visual shorthand, and to this end he adhered to a modernist design philosophy which he neatly summed up in the phrase "maximum meaning, minimum means".

Games spent most of his life working independently, producing graphic designs from the studio at his family home in Golders Green, London. In retrospect, apart from the war years, he never appeared to be comfortable with the constraints of an organisation. Towards the end of his life he could still produce school reports, from the 1920s, which illustrated how difficult he found it to function within institutions. In one report of 1929 he was described as "lazy, indifferent, careless, untidy", and most astonishingly his drawing was described as "weak".

When Games persuaded his parents to allow him to leave the Grocers' Company School, Hackney the headmaster brutally told him: "To be an artist you need talent and you haven't got it". An attempt to continue his art education at St Martin's School of Art, in London (1930), proved to be another frustrating and unrewarding experience. After two terms Games abandoned his formal art education. He continued life classes in the evening and spent his lunchtimes drawing at the National Gallery and making anatomical studies at the Royal College of Surgeons.

In 1936 he won first prize in a poster competition to promote London County Council eve-ning classes. In the same year he was dismissed from the commercial art studio of Askew-Young after he was caught fooling around - he was attempting a standing jump over four chairs when his boss caught him in mid air: "I went flying, and my job went flying too!"

Thereafter Games concentrated his efforts on promoting his solo design career. Copies of the journal Art & Industry (1937), featuring some of his early poster designs, were sent to studios in London. Gradually commissions for posters came from prestigious clients like London Transport, the GPO and Shell. The renowned design director of Shell, Jack Beddington, was later to prove influential in Games' appointment at the War Office. This was a golden age of poster design and Games acknowledged the influence of great French posterists like A. M. Cassandre, Jean Carlu, Paul Colin, and in Britain, Edward McKnight Kauffer. His own distinctive visual language emerged strongly in the instructional and educational posters he produced during the war.

A skilled airbrush practitioner, Games usually preferred to produce his graphic images by hand rather than to rely upon photography. As his father was a photographer Games was familiar with dark-room techniques and occasionally combined photography with hand-drawn elements. In "He Talked . . . - They Died" (1943), part of the "Careless Talk" campaign, he incorporated a photograph of a soldier's body ensnared face-down in barbed wire. The horror attached to this record of a death was infused with real pathos.

A number of Games' war posters excited fierce responses, most notably from the Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, and the Labour Minister, Ernest Bevin. His early recruitment poster for the ATS - the women's army - was not reprinted after its "suitability" was questioned in parliament. This poster, which portrayed a glamorous woman soldier in uniform (the "blonde bombshell"), helped to redefine perceptions of the ATS, and at the same time challenged those who were defending traditional views of the feminine.

Even greater controversy was generated by Games' contribution to the "Your Britain . . . Fight for it now" campaign produced for the Army Bureau of Current Affairs (1942). In a powerful set of three posters the socialist Games chose to acknowledge the darker side of social inequality in Britain and presented examples of modern architecture - a school, a block of flats, a health centre - signifying a brighter future for post-war Britain.

By juxtaposing these images with grim reminders of the squalid conditions on the Home Front he infuriated some of the war cabinet. Ernest Bevin was responsible for the removal of the poster from an Artists' International Association exhibition and Churchill ordered its destruction. The poster was an unwelcome reminder, particularly to Conservative politicians, of the heavy burden of popular expectation likely to emerge after the war.

Games' rich array of concise and effective wartime images cajoled soldiers about personal cleanliness, warned against careless talk and horse-play with weapons, persuaded civilians to give blood, grow their own food, and even knit socks.

The poster which Games claimed he would most like to be remembercd for is the chilling "Your Talk May Kill Your Comrades" (1942). This post-er's message is illustrated in a shockingly literal manner. A spiralling form radiates from a soldier's mouth to signify the circulation of careless gossip. This symbol for language turns into a surreal blood-red bayonet which penetrates three contorted bodies. The link between the soldier's talk and its deadly effect is made crystal clear.

Games' special position at the War Office meant that he was among the first to see the horrific pictorial evidence of Nazi brutality in the concentration camps. These images would haunt him for the rest of his life. As a graphic designer he was deeply conscious of the Nazis' exploitation of all forms of design for their own obscene ends. This harrowing revelation sharpened Games' awareness of the responsibility of the graphic designer to present the truth according to his conscience and religious and political beliefs.

As a Jew, Games had worked for the Jewish Relief Unit. After the war he worked tirelessly for many Jewish and Israeli organisations. His poster "Give Clothing for Liberated Jewry" (1946) - based upon an image of a starving adult in Belsen - is a haunting reminder of the period.

Games was demobbed in 1946 and resumed his freelance practice. Soon he was working on a number of distinguished campaigns - The Financial Times, British European Airways, Guinness and the island of Jersey. In 1948 he won a competition limited to 12 leading designers which resulted in the ubiquitous Britannia and the cardinal points emblem of the Festival of Britain. There were very few households in 1950s Britain which did not possess a Festival souvenir displaying this symbol.

In addition to graphic design Games had a passion for inventing and was proud of his large number of product patents. During the 1950s he invented a copying process which attracted the interest of the large electronic companies. His most famous invention is the Cona Coffee New Table Model (1959) which is now a much sought-after design classic.

Games' international stature was confirmed in 1958 by the award of an OBE, followed in 1959 by his appointment as Royal Designer for Industry (RDI). Influential as a teacher at the Royal College of Art (1946-53), his meticulous working methods are outlined in Over My Shoulder, a book he produced in 1960.

His skill with letterforms was well demonstrated in the logotype and corporate identity he produced for GKN (1968). This outstanding logotype has stood the test of time and is still in use today.

In contrast to his posters Games demonstrated his ability to work on a miniature scale with a set of tourist stamps for Jersey, which won first prize in an international philatelic competition in Italy (1976).

Although latterly detached from the trends of current design practice, Games continued to work productively throughout his final years for a range of public service and charitable organisations. His lifetime achievement was recognised by his peers in 1991 when he received the Designers and Art Directors Association President's Award.

Games' long career paralleled the development of the professional practice of graphic design with its move away from the independent commercial artist to the emergence of the large design consultancies. His early decision to work as a freelance placed him apart from other leading contemporaries like F.H.K. Henrion and Hans Schleger, both of whom established flourishing practices. Games' singular dedication underpinned the strong moral and political integrity which made his oeuvre so distinctive and memorable within the graphic design of this century.

Alan and

Isabella Livingston

Abram Games, graphic designer: born Whitechapel, London 29 July 1914; OBE 1958; RDI 1959; married 1945 Marianne Salfeld (died 1988; one son, two daughters); died London 27 August 1996.

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