Like many mid-century design pioneers, George Him forged his career through the application of European modernist and avant-garde artistic ideas in commercial situations. However, Him’s work achieved a blend of humor and effective communication, as well as a depth of storytelling, that was difficult for others to replicate. Perhaps because he spent almost half of his career working as part of a duo—with Jan Le Witt as Lewitt-Him—or because of his modest personality that shunned self-promotion, Him isn’t as well-known today as some of his contemporaries. An exhibition at London’s House of Illustration hopes to change that, with the first in-depth retrospective of the designer and illustrator’s work. George Him: A Polish Designer for Mid-Century Britain is currently closed due to the pandemic, but has nonetheless revitalized interest in the designer and his relevance today.
“Him was an early advocate for the value of graphic design as a creative practice,” says Olivia Ahmed, the curator of the exhibition (which plans to reopen when it’s safe to do so). “Rather than thinking of a designer as someone who simply makes a commercial transaction with a client, he believed in the essential artistic and social value of graphic design as a point of connection with people.”
Him, whose work straddled illustration and graphic design, was a key early figure in the development of the profession in Britain. And although he always advocated that the designers’ role was first and foremost to solve his client’s problems, rather than pleasing himself, Him’s work is playful and energetic—one gets the feeling he always managed the difficult task of doing both. As fellow illustrator David Gentleman has put it, Him’s work was “always adventurous, humorous and elegant; but it also had a simple and unassuming, almost childlike air that seemed to belie his breadth of vision and understanding.”
Him was born Jerzy Himmelfarb in August 1900 to a Polish-Jewish family in Lodz, Poland. At the age of 17, Jerzy moved to Moscow to study Law, but arrived just in time for the October Revolution, which promptly shut down the universities’ law department. Returning home, he resumed his education, this time focusing on religion, which took him to universities in Lodz, Warsaw, Berlin, and finally Bonn in Germany where, in 1924, he completed a PhD on the comparative history of religions. By the time he had finished his thesis, his desire for an academic life had diminished completely. Long an avid sketcher in his spare time, Himmelfarb’s journey to becoming George Him, professional commercial artist, was about to begin.
In 1924, Him enrolled at Leipzig’s Academy for Graphic Art and Book Industry. He studied in the city, a historic center of book production, for another four years, but was also working professionally from 1926 onwards, collaborating with magazines and creating theater stage sets. After several years in Germany, Him returned to Poland, settling in Warsaw where, in 1933, he was involved with ten other designers in the founding of the Circle of Advertising Graphic Artists (KAGR) which provided promotion and encouragement to Poland’s burgeoning design industry. That was also the year that he met Jan Le Witt, beginning a long and fruitful creative partnership.
Le Witt, whose surname was originally Levitt, was seven years Him’s junior, and had a similar background as the son of a middle-class Jewish family in central Poland. However, Le Witt’s life had been more turbulent: his father had died when he was 13, and the ruling Bolsheviks took charge of the families’ property. Lew Witt left the country and spent the next few years travelling around Europe and the Middle East, working an array of odd jobs but with an artistic career always on his mind. In 1928, he put his self-taught creative talents to use back in Poland on commissions from various government departments and some of the country’s leading publishers, while also developing his art practice as a painter. He met Him by chance at a Warsaw café frequented by artists and writers and shortly thereafter they decided to form a partnership to join their commercial efforts. The birth of this new duo sparked a name change: Him thought Le Witt-Himmelfarb too lengthy, especially since they intended to sign all of their work, and shortened his surname to Him (the Anglicization of Jerzy to George came later).
Working together, Him and Le Witt found more success in Poland than they ever had individually. They designed for a variety of sectors, including book jackets, magazine covers, and adverts for pharmaceutical companies. The majority of their work was illustrative, done by hand with brush, and influenced by avant-garde movements like surrealism and cubism. However, they also incorporated photography and modern typography at times, putting Him’s formal education in Germany to good use. Mostly they relied on their natural creative inclinations and pursued visual communication, symbolism, and pictorial storytelling, rather than relying on words to do the job for them.
Their work soon gained attention beyond their home, mostly due to features in various European design magazines, but also thanks to the ingenuity and success of the first book they illustrated together; Lokomotywa, a collection of three children’s stories by poet Julian Tuwim published in Poland just before the outbreak of WWII. The book’s use of double pages spreads, integration of text and image, and playful, bright, and simple illustrative approach was both modern and refreshing. It was also prescient of the mid-century style to come and a trend of commercial designers turning to children’s books as a creative outlet.
The illustrating of children’s books, for clients like Minerva and Faber & Faber, became a key area for the Lewitt-Him, including titles such as The Football’s Revolt (1939, republished by the V&A in 2015), Blue Peter (1941), and Five Silly Cats (1944), all of which were written by Le Witt’s wife Alina but credited to Lewitt-Him on the cover. Despite his academic background and interest in mythology and storytelling, Him never wrote any children’s books himself, still preferring to illustrate for others once he was working independently of Le Witt, for writers like Ann Thwaite, Stephen Potter, and Frank Herrmann, whose Him-illustrated book Alexander the Giant book series sold over 600,000 copies.
In 1937—the fourth year of their partnership—Le Witt and Him were invited to mount an exhibition of their commercial art and book illustrations to date at British publisher Lund Humphries’ London office in Bedford Square, Bloomsbury. The invite came at an ideal time, providing an escape route for these two Jewish artists whose lives would have been at risk had they stayed in Poland through the imminent Nazi invasion. They settled in London permanently, enjoying the city’s creative community, atmosphere, and greater commercial opportunities. The V&A Museum, which had begun to collect Lewitt-Him work before they relocated, acted as their sponsor, ensuring a smooth immigration process, which shows the international prestige they had already achieved. They established a new studio in Kensington and set to work for a range of British clients, including the General Post Office, American Overseas Airlines, and after the outbreak of WWII, the Ministries of Information, Food, and War.
The fact that Le Witt and Him worked together as a duo, something uncommon at the time, created a lot of curiosity throughout their career, especially because they never made it clear who was responsible for what. The invite for their 1937 London exhibition featured a humorous self-portrait that reflected the nature of their partnership: each artist was represented as a paintbrush, with different thicknesses representing their contrasting builds, but they share a torso. The message being that, even though they were two, they work as one. A 1946 Graphis magazine feature on the pair asked, “How is it that works of such strong individuality can have two fathers?” They answered that they had a harmoniously shared visual style but conflicting temperaments, which helped them develop stronger ideas through a process rarely free of disagreements.
For 18 years together Lewitt-Him ranked among the absolute elite of British graphic designers, even garnering trans-Atlantic fame; in 1953, they exhibited in Manhattan and were featured in Time magazine, and in January 1954 they illustrated the cover of Fortune magazine, which during its mid-century heyday seldom used designers based outside America. Alongside more conventional graphic design work, the pair also undertook three-dimensional works, including exhibition designs in 1946 for Britain Can Make It held at the V&A, and in 1951 they designed an eccentric contraption called the ‘Guinness Festival Clock’ which was a 25-foot high animatronic clock tower installed during the 1951 Festival of Britain at the Battersea Pleasure Gardens, home to the less high-minded aspects of the festival. However, in 1955 the partnership came to an end after their working relationship had soured.
For Le Witt it seems design was a means to an end—recognition as a painter for ‘fine’ art was what he craved. In contrast, Him was once quoted saying “I managed to do for money what I would have done in exactly the same way had I been working for my own satisfaction.” Him continued to work as a designer and illustrator after 1955 right until his death in 1982, sustaining many of the duo’s former clients as well as adding new ones. He was extremely passionate about design; Him was close friends with other London designers such as Abram Games and Hans Schleger, taught graphic design at Leicester Polytechnic for much of the 1970s, was an active member of AGI and the SIA (Society of Industrial Artists) and became a Royal Designer for Industry in 1977 in recognition of his achievements and stature.
Once he was working on his own again, Him did some very high-profile and well-regarded work, such as the ‘Schweppeshire’ series for soft-drinks company Schweppes. Created in collaboration with writer Stephen Potter, the long-running series of adverts set in the fictional county of Schweppeshire poked fun at British quirks, for which Him’s style and wit were perfectly placed. He also continued to do work in three dimensions, such as point of sale displays units for Schweppes and Penguin books, and window displays, the most notable of which was a large project, involving 18 windows inspired by fairytales, for the 1957 opening of Marcel Breuer-designed department store De Bijenkorf in Rotterdam. Him also became involved in animation, something that was unusual for British illustrators at the time to explore, and worked on animated films and adverts with agency Halas & Batchelor. Him’s style and sense of humor, as well as his innate passion for storytelling, worked incredibly well when put in motion.
Throughout his life, Him also used his abilities in service of a strong social consciousness. During the war, Lewitt-Him published Polish Panoramas, a book of photographs with all proceeds going towards helping the people of Poland, as well as painted murals to cheer up soldiers and factory workers, and designed posters for the Polish government during its wartime exile. After the partnership ended, Him started to do more work that was in touch with his Jewish roots, such as an exhibition in 1961 about the Warsaw Ghetto for which Him designed posters, catalogues, and displays, working closely with Holocaust survivors on a subject that still wasn’t widely talked about at the time. He also worked a lot with charities and organisations based in Israel, as well as on cartoons and cover illustrations for The New Middle East a non-partisan magazine promoting reconciliation. Him was once quoted as saying that he hoped “the two nations could live together happily and fruitfully.” The connection to Israel resulted in a project that shows a different side to Him; his 1963 branding design for the airline El Al, a project (done in collaboration with Otto Treumann) whose rigid typographic modernism is in stark contrast to the majority of his oeuvre.
Him’s output shows the timeless value of the human touch in graphic design; the personality, humor and heart that can come from it. As Ahmed, the House of Illustration curator says, “His work has an essential humanity—it is all about finding humor in people’s everyday concerns and habits, and although he was working in the 20th century, these don’t change so much.”