Designer who taught us to keep it simple

Abram Games’s eye for clean graphic images transformed the world of posters and his art lives on in the London Underground today

Art Features
Dedicated to design: Games in his studio with his ATS poster

In life, as in art, Abram Games was a great believer in symmetry. It is there in his emblem for the Festival of Britain: a helmeted Britannia above a four-pointed compass. It is there in his poster for the Dig For Victory campaign where a garden spade ready to turn over a vegetable patch is mirrored in a battleship on choppy waters. It is there, too, in the cover he designed for Penguin’s edition of Flames in the Sky, Pierre Clostermann’s collection of Second World War air battles. An unblinking pilot gazes fixedly ahead while a blazing plane, superimposed over his flight goggles, plummets to earth. 

Games would have been pleased then to discover that on the day marking celebrations for the centenary of his birth, July 29, 2014, his family were also toasting the birth of his tenth great-grandchild. The evenness of the two births falling exactly 100 years apart would have appealed not only to his sense of symmetry but also to his delight in teases and happy chance. 

Games was born in Whitechapel in the last few hot days of peace before Britain entered the war in 1914. His father Joseph may have been a Latvian émigré photographer and his mother Sarah a seamstress from the borders of Russia and Hungary, but Games (the family had anglicised the Jewish Gamse) always considered himself a Cockney. 

He was educated at the Grocers’ Company School in Hackney Downs, though he was not a natural scholar. In one report from his final year, showing the unerring instinct some teachers have for underestimating their pupils, he was described as “lazy, indifferent, careless, untidy” and that his drawing was, at best, weak.

At 16, after two unsuccessful terms at St Martin’s School of Art (paid for by his parents as he had failed to win a scholarship), he decided to make a go of things on his own. He attended life-drawing classes at the Royal College of Surgeons and learnt studio discipline from his father. 

As he walked between his home in East London and the Royal College in Lincoln’s Inn Fields, he took a keen interest in the posters pasted on London’s advertising boards. He found little to inspire. “The general standard,” he later said, “was mediocre traditionalism.”

He worked for a while at a tight-deadline, churn-them-out, please-the-client commercial advertising firm but was dismissed after he was caught attempting a standing jump over four chairs. His studio boss told him that his work was ahead of its time by ten years. “I cannot wait ten years,” was Games’s characteristically impatient response. 

In 1937, out of a job and eager to see his own posters on London’s billboards, he bought 70 copies of the journal Art & Industry, which featured a double-page spread of his designs, and sent them to prospective clients, including the General Post Office, Shell and London Transport. Within a few months, Frank Pick, the head of the London Underground, who had commissioned the struck-through roundel that is still the symbol of the Tube network today and Harry Beck’s “circuit board” Tube map, had commissioned Games for his first poster. Eighteen more would follow. 

Two of the early designs are elegant examples of Games’s battle cry, “Maximum meaning, minimum means.” They were intended for a campaign to encourage Underground users to visit London’s cultural attractions. In one, for concerts, ballet and the opera, the Tube roundel has been turned into a treble clef. In the other, for galleries, exhibitions and museums, the roundel has become an artist’s palette. 

The most successful of his designs delighted both the London Transport board and the public. Responding to a request for “a gay, colourful and light-hearted poster” for London Zoo, Games came up with a tiger built up from the bars and circles of the Tube insignia. A set of sketches of giraffes, leopards and zebras — all animals with graphic markings — shows how Games experimented until deciding on a tiger whose tail looks like the last few stops at the end of a Tube line. A socialist, he liked the idea of designing for everyone — hot commuters and cheerful day trippers — rather than an elite of art world patrons. 

Above: “Use Spades Not Ships”, 1942. Below: “Festival Of Britain:, 1951.

In 1939, three years after those first London Transport commissions, the 25-year-old Games joined the army as an infantry private. There was little scope for artistic expression beyond painting backcloths for army concerts.

In its early days, the War Office struggled with the tone of its propaganda machine. Black-and-white information sheets pinned to barracks noticeboards were ignored by the men, and the public was angered by the patrician tone of the posters. “Your courage, your cheerfulness, your resolution will bring US victory,” read one. Passers-by would correct the words to: “Our courage, our cheerfulness, our resolution, will bring US victory.”

On his first leave in 1940, Games began agitating to design for the Ministry of Information. He was certain he could design posters which the public would not want to deface. It took a year of petitioning before he was ordered to report to the War Office.

The Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS) was desperate for energetic young women to work as clerks, cooks, telephonists, orderlies, drivers and ammunition inspectors, and Games was asked to design a suitable poster.

The story has it that Games, sitting in his studio at the War Office and wondering how to approach the design, was interrupted by a 19-year-old staff member, Doreen Murphy. Irritated at having been disturbed, he sent her out but taking a second look, called her back. “As she was leaving I noticed she was rather a corker,” he later explained in an interview. She was asked to sit for him as the model ATS girl and the resulting poster of Miss Murphy with her neat ATS hat and victory-rolled hair was nicknamed “The Blonde Bombshell”. Ten thousand posters were printed, but after a parliamentary debate led by the puritanical Thelma Cazalet-Keir MP, they were withdrawn. “It is not the kind of poster,” she said, “that would encourage mothers to send their girls into the Auxiliary Territorial Service. It’s more like a beauty product advertisement.”

Games was unrepentant. “Women joined the Wrens [Women’s Royal Naval Service] because they looked so much better in the Navy blue than in Army khaki,” he insisted. “It was supposed to be a remedy to the ATS’s dowdy image and it worked.” 

You cannot help but wonder, though, if the poster would have been thought quite so dangerously sexy, if the public had known that the “corking” Blonde Bombshell was really a Doreen. 

Still, it didn’t put the War Office off and Games went on to produce more than 100 posters on everything from the importance of not wasting a scrap of food to the need to knit socks for men fighting in jungles abroad. 

The artist David Gentleman, whose latest book In the Country (Full Circle Editions, £25) is published this month, was taught by Games at the Royal College of Art after the war. Gentleman recalls seeing Games’s posters pasted up around his boyhood home town of Hertford, which suffered its share of doodlebug flying bombs. When Gentleman served his military service between school and the RCA, Games’s posters were still up on the walls.

He particularly remembers Games’s “tough and chilling” poster “Your Talk May Kill Your Comrades”. While much war propaganda showed noble, heroic soldiers with square, resolute jaws, Games’s image shows an open-mouthed recruit spilling secrets which spiral out to a dagger point to impale three fellow soldiers. It is a starker warning than the mild “Careless Talk Costs Lives”.

After the war, Games was demobilised and he set up home with his wife Marianne Salfield, a textile designer, in Surbiton and later Golders Green. Her mother-in-law had told her that the best way to calm Games’s mercurial temper was to never let him get hungry. Her collection of well-thumbed Penguin paperback cookbooks — a row of Elizabeth Davids among them — now sits on their daughter Naomi’s kitchen shelves.


Above: “London Zoo”, 1976. Below: Stockwell Swan tile mural at Stockwell Tube Station, 1970

Naomi remembers him as both temperamental and sentimental. He would often sneak the names of children — or in his pre-marriage days, girlfriends — into his posters. He worked from home and the three children were allowed to sit on the studio’s blue linoleum floor, Listen With Mother or the cricket on the radio, playing with paper and paints. As soon as there was noise or mess, though, Games would throw them out. 

David Gentleman remembers him as a stern and demanding teacher — but kind. He had a whimsical side, too. One Monday morning he arrived and told the class that the week’s assignment was to go to the cinema to see Occupe-toi d’Amélie — a popular, and rather risqué, French film. 

Games taught at the RCA from 1946 to 1953 and it was during this time that he was given the commission that would make his career. In 1951 he won the competition to design a symbol for the Festival of Britain. 

In his studio, this son of immigrants began working out in matchbox-size sketches how Britain should represent itself to the world. The design he alighted on showed a helmeted Britannia above a compass rose in Union Jack colours. This early draft was sombre, even martial with Britannia’s Greek helmet, and hardly in keeping with the Festival’s message about postwar recovery and optimism. 

Then Games happened to catch sight of his wife hanging up the washing in the breeze outside. He added a string of red, white and blue bunting to the compass points and a newly cheerful, jaunty Britannia appeared across the country on stamps, banners, posters, flags and brochures. 

Looking at a copy of the 1951 Festival Guide, filled with advertisements for British brands, you realise just how ahead of his time Games was. Advertising still tended towards mini-essays, rather than catchy single slogans. The advertisement for Coalite Smokeless Coal takes 120 words to puff its product, Bass Worthington Beer 142 words and Cow & Gate baby food 172 words. 

When Games was asked to design a poster for one of Bass Worthington’s rivals, he used just one word: Guinness. He turned the curve of the G into a smiling face and the upright bar into a full pint glass. Games was part of the new Mad Men generation of artists and designers who stripped away text and fussy drawings and replaced them with a single, instant image. 

Posters for The Times, British European Airways, Shell, BP and British Rail followed. In the 1950s he designed starkly graphic covers for Penguin Books. He also turned his hand to invention, designing a coffee percolator known as the Cona Rex, made from the scrap of old Spitfires. He worked voluntarily for the Jewish Committee for Relief Abroad, drawing badges, banners and posters. 

Games’s faith was of great importance to him and it is fitting that his centenary will be marked with an exhibition at the Jewish Museum in London. When the children were growing up, the rabbi would come for tea and remark with pleasure that the Games’ house was the only one he visited that was full of art and books. 

David Gentleman remembers Games, who died in 1996, for his sense of mischief. “There was always a sense of irony, of cocking a snook at some aspects of British values.” In 1991, when the Royal Designers for Industry board asked Games to design a crest for their annual dinner, he redrew the Festival of Britain symbol with Britannia replaced by Margaret Thatcher, a handbag tucked in the crook of one arm. He had a favourite joke, too, about the tiled Swan mural he designed for the platforms of Stockwell station, which you can still see today. “You’ve got to step well back to see it properly,” he used to say. “But I wouldn’t recommend it.”

Safer perhaps to catch the black and white swans with orange beaks from inside the carriage of a northbound Victoria Line train.  If you change at Oxford Circus, the Bakerloo will take you to London Zoo and its tigers with striped Tube-line tails. At Victoria, you can change to the Circle Line to Embankment station for a view across the river to the Royal Festival Hall. There, on a sunny day, you can imagine Britannia, strung with bunting, fluttering from flagpoles the length of the South Bank.