Romek Marber: the émigré designer who changed British design forever with a grid
“A cover wasn’t even reviewed by some committee. They printed them on the spot, without asking me for an alternative. They never once said that they disliked my covers” once said the prolific Polish-Jewish graphic designer Romek Marber who passed away.
Romek Marber was born in 1925 in Turek, Poland. After the outbreak of the Second World War he was deported to the Bochnia Ghetto.
In 1942, thanks to the help of a German officer named Gerhard Kurzbach, he was fortunately spared the fate of being transported to the Bełżec death camp.
In 1943, Marber managed to escape the ghetto, but was arrested by the Gestapo in Krakow and imprisoned. After a few weeks of being in prison, he was sent to Płaszów concentration camp.
“On 14th of January 1945 with a small group of prisoners I was marched from Płaszow Concentration Camp to Auschwitz Concentration Camp. Thousands of prisoners joined us in Auschwitz. Together we were marched to Gliwice and loaded into open railway wagons to be transported to Germany. This was my last day in Poland” he wrote in his autobiography “No Return: Journeys in the Holocaust” published in 2010.
After the war, Marber immigrated to Great Britain and in the early 1950s he began his education at the St Martin's School of Art, later attending the prestigious Royal College of Art.
After graduating from the Royal College of Art he began to create graphic works for “The Economist” and “New Society.”
“The newsprint paper and the coarseness of the halftone printed by letterpress [of the Economist] suited the boldness of my work..... Black with red is simple and dramatic” he once stated.
It was this body of work for the “Economist” which impressed the then Penguin art director Germano Facetti. Eventually he commissioned Marber to design covers for Simeon Potter's “Our Language” and “Language in the Modern World”.
Soon after these initial designs, Facetti asked Marber to submit a proposal for a new cover approach for the Penguin Crime series. He was asked to do twenty titles in four months (between June and October).
Marber chose to retain the green color for the series, though he used a 'fresher' shade and he kept the horizontal banding of the previous Edward Young designs.
The image on Marber's covers occupies just over two-thirds of the space, while the title section at the top is divided into three bands carrying colophon/series name/price, the title and the author's name, with the type ranged left.
Marber’s distinctive design became the standard layout for the entire range of Penguin paperbacks and his visual approach aka the Marber Grid is considered one of the most important achievements of British graphic design.
In 1964, Marber was employed as artistic director of “The Observer Magazine.”
“Marber is rightly celebrated for these Penguin covers and the ‘Marber grid’ that transformed the look of Penguin Books in the 1960s, but his work for other clients, including manufacturers, distributors, publishers, newspapers and film producers, is equally arresting” writes Eye Magazine in this insightful piece on the case of Romek Marber.
“With its no-nonsense use of sans serif type, highly original illustration, sharply conceived photography and photograms, Marber’s design encapsulates a distinctive form of European Modernism with a British émigré twist.”
In 2013, The Minories, Colchester exhibited a retrospective of graphic work designed by Romek Marber for Penguin books, The Economist, New Society, Town and Queen magazines, Nicholson’s London Guides, BBC Television, Columbia Pictures, London Planetarium and others.
The exhibition went on to be shown at the University of Brighton and the Galicia Jewish Museum in Krakow bringing his unique modernist visual language which has had a profound impact on British design and design education to the public.
“Professor Marber's work is striking and bold, taking its cues from an intimate understanding of modernist design ideals and a strong sense of the way in which visual language can speak to us directly and efficiently” stated professor Anne Boddington, the University of Brighton's Dean of the Faculty of Arts.
Romek Marber's work is permanently conserved in the Design Archive of the Victoria and Albert Museum.
Marber was 94 years old.
All images via the Galicia Jewish Museum