In a small cabinet at the far end of Ditchling Museum, we see a handful of immigration papers. It’s the 1930s, and graphic artist Elizabeth Friedlander has already fled Germany. As a Jew, her life in Italy is rapidly becoming untenable. Time is running out. An Italian design client writes her a reference, and she applies for asylum to the US. Her application is swiftly turned down – before finally the UK accepts her request for a domestic service visa. This last letter is a moving document indeed, a small typewritten note which may well have represented for Friedlander the difference between life and death.
This is an exhibition about the work of a great graphic designer and typographer, but it’s also a show about the twentieth century. Friedlander’s intricate repeating patterns and classic elegant penmanship in a sense defined the aesthetic of postwar English book design, but her studied, understated work belies the far more dramatic story of a desperate flight from war and the desire to carry on creating beautiful things against the odds. Thankfully for us, beauty won. It’s all around us here in this lovely little show.
Friedlander started her professional career as a type designer, producing a typeface for the Bauer Foundry in Frankfurt. It was released just as Hitler assumed power. The company, thinking it unwise to release a typeface with an indentifiably Jewish name (Friedlander) ended up calling it ‘Elizabeth’.
When she reached England, Friedlander found her talents much in demand as part of a top secret black propaganda unit faking documents for the war effort, and after the conflict ended she decided to make Britain her home. Germany’s loss was to be our gain.
This show, organised as a broadly chronological survey of Friedlander’s career, offers us a rare chance to see original artworks, sketchbook pages and process drawings by this talented and influential designer. Friedlander worked, of course, in a time before computers and email – and there is something hugely alluring about watching these designs come together in wholly analogue fashion on paper. In 1950, for example, she rendered a special calligraphic version of the iconic Penguin for Penguin books – and all her numerous work-in-progress attempts are displayed here, taped to a page as though she were still agonising over them. As viewers we feel immediately thankful that she saw fit to keep these quite ephemeral working drawings. The more finished pieces, small though they may be, also pack their own significant punch. We have, for example a final painted version of a Daily Express newspaper masthead, and next to it a header for the New Statesman. These designs have quite literally become part of our culture.
Friedlander was an expert in calligraphy and the rendering of letterforms, but she allied this with a keen sense of colour and an ability to produce beautiful but very restrained, un-chintzy abstract patterns. Our highlight of this show is a framed selection of these delicate filigree patterns. Free from their design context we can truly enjoy them as artworks. They are extremely small scale (smaller than A6) and painted in gouache with tiny brushes. Her eyesight and powers of concentration must have been incredible. In a nearby case, we see several of these patterns in commercial use, as covers for an iconic series of Penguin music scores – displayed beside a valuable 1703 Klotz violin. This isn’t mere window dressing on the part of the curators. This violin was one of the only things Friedlander, an accomplished musician, succeeded in bringing from her homeland as she fled. It’s a particularly poignant touch in a show that succeeds in feeling both like a collection of graphic design, and a personal body of work, with the stamp of individuality and personal pride.
Ditchling Museum of Art and Craft
6th January – 29th April 2018
£6.50 / £5.50 concessions