The graphic designer George Him was that mythical beast critics are always hunting for: someone who made avant-garde art for a mass audience. Born Jerzy Himmelfarb in Poland at the turn of the last century, he left safely before the Nazi invasion, relocated to Britain, and became—with the help of his newly Anglicized name and his old graphic-design partner, Jan Le Witt—one of the essential modern commercial artists. In 1941, while T. S. Eliot was finishing Four Quartets, Him and Le Witt debuted their own modernist experiment, The Vegetabull. The poster, widely circulated during the ration era, shows a bull made of cabbage and cauliflower—the point being that a nation of beef eaters could get by just fine on greens.
This was government propaganda. It was also—as you learn from the George Him exhibition at London’s House of Illustration—personal. Posters were Him and Le Witt’s way of striking back at the Fascists who had kept them from returning to Poland. After V-day, their design firm, Lewitt-Him, had a full decade of success before Le Witt left to concentrate on abstract painting. On his own, Him remained an enthusiastic cheerleader of postwar prosperity, designing ads for Schweppes, Penguin Books, and Pan American Airways. His career, stretching from the war years to the Thatcher years, from Noël Coward to Sid Vicious, is a reminder of how much of the midcentury West’s self-image was invented by Eastern Europeans who’d been chased out of their homes.
Him’s designs are monumental yet friendly. Like Legos, they evoke the thrill of making big things from tiny, interchangeable bits. Many are gently satirical (in an ad for the Times, an upper-class bloke in blue bathing trunks scuttles off to the beach like he’s late for a meeting), some are rather sinister (a magazine cover shows the Middle East noosed in Yankee-Commie phone lines), and most are irresistible (in his 1948 campaign for American Overseas Airlines, a map curls into a massive Tudor ruff). Him’s great themes were those of 50s consumerism: freedom, expansion, conquest disguised as hedonism. When so much of today’s advertising is about an ever shrinking domestic coziness, his work is a reminder of the time when industry, after a generation under siege, exploded in all directions. —Jackson Arn