An airbrush with history – Abram Games

by NJ McGarrigle

Abram Games with his controversial ATS poster, which was later withdrawn.

Abram Games

On one occasion when Abram Games returned to collect his portfolio from an agents’ studio in London, he was told that his work was ‘ten years ahead of the public’. At the time, the 1930s, Games was still trying to establish a foothold as a freelance artist, so he somewhat caustically replied: ‘I can’t wait ten years.’ It’s now twenty years since Games‘ death and in many senses he still seems ahead of the curve, such is the striking vitality and originality of his designs, ensuring his place as one of the greatest and most influential graphic designers of the 20th century.

Only subject matter, such as the Second World War, dates Games‘ legacy. Other designs like the first animated ident of BBC Television (1953) looks like an early prototype for a Star Wars’ TIE Fighter. Games‘ artistic sensibilities were influenced by the Bauhaus (see the 1963 cover of Swiss magazine ‘Graphis’) and constructivism (reference his designs for Post Office lines of communication or the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents). His work possessed a surreal streak too: none more so than the Financial Times’ Christmas cards (1951-55) where the ‘Manewspaper’ is carrying home presents, or dashing from the office to catch his train.

The best-known work remains that associated with wartime or in the period of optimism following it: commissions for Transport for London, Guinness, The Times newspaper, the Festival of Britain, and the War Office itself were created through the genius of Games. He was 25 when he joined the British Army as an infantry private in 1940 but his talent was soon in demand for a recruitment poster, which was to become a design classic. Ten thousand copies were printed for the Auxiliary Territorial Service, but the design for ‘Join the ATS’ was banned soon after, following debates in parliament declaring the poster girl ‘too glamorous’; for the rest of his life Games was never fully reconciled with his ‘Blonde Bombshell’ design despite its stunning originality for 1941.

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Controversy did not stem the flow of work for Games –  he created posters guarding against careless talk; medical and dental hygiene; safety; education; anti-pilfering or waste, and his creative thinking was put to good use as well, with wartime shortages of ink and paper. This artistic flourishing wasn’t always guaranteed. Born in 1914 to the sound of the Bow Bells (Games always considered himself a true cockney despite emigré parents) at school he was told that his drawing skills were weak. This did not deter his ambitions to be an artist though; he wryly noted he just ‘had a larger waste-paper basket’.

‘I am a graphic thinker,’ he said later in life, ‘I am bad at drawing… I decided right at the beginning that even if I couldn’t draw, I could think and see. If you can see, you can observe, you can comment.’ And comment he did, although he disliked using words on his designs (ideally he would have had none whatsoever). It was part of his aesthetic principles that led him to his overriding philosophy of graphic design: Maximum Meaning, Minimum Means. In fact, when meeting a client Games would submit just one design, on the thinking that if he himself was unsure, how can the client be expected to make a decision?

As times changed and the medium of the message developed, television in its nascent state would soon come to rule advertising, and although it failed to press any buttons for Games artistically, he must have realised it was the future. He was an egalitarian and would surely have acknowledged how TV (eventually) got the message to the masses, for better or worse. For someone with strong socialist principles, Games must have struggled with the fact that his ideas were, in the main, used to grease the wheels of capitalism: Shell Oil, Air Travel companies, ‘G is for Guinness’ being just a few of his clients. (No doubt he would have felt conflicted like director Andrei Tarkovsky was about cinema; the Russian called it a ‘bad art’ due its dependency on money.)

In a brief spell working in the advertising world after his studies at St Martin’s School of Art, Games was stupefied and felt smothered by its artifices (he was eventually sacked for an office prank; grateful, no doubt). His antipathy to commercialism drove his output in other ways during the war and afterwards. When he set up a studio in his North London home, he committed himself to works of public service: designs for Spain’s Civil War Relief, London Underground, the ‘Your Britain, Fight For it Now’ campaign; the latter involving the infamous Finsbury Health Centre poster, which was banned by Winston Churchill for featuring a boy with rickets as it would have been bad for wartime morale. Games also volunteered with the Jewish Committee for Relief Abroad, designing many items for no payment.

Today his work remains vivid in its airbrushed boldness and the effectiveness of the designs meant they could work on a one-inch surface – he created many stamps – or on a hoarding. He was also known as an inspiring teacher and an inventor (see YouTube footage of his 1950 Cona coffee brewer), but it’s his graphic designs that will fire future imaginations. Before he died in 1996, he said ‘I don’t know if I have influenced design, but I have had a few compliments, and some people have cribbed my work, so, from that point of view, people are influenced.’

For someone who was always reticent to use words in his work, we should finish by referring to an unpublished poster Games designed for the Financial Times. The pink ‘un is suspended and opened against a black background, with lower sections cut away from the newspaper to spell the letters ‘FT’. Beside this large abstract symbol, in small lower-case letters are just two words, also in pink: no comment.

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