Monday 31 March 2014

‘a Penguin Book’

Romek Marber, born in Poland in 1925, was deported at the age of 14 to the Jewish ghetto of Bochnia. Marber’s grandparents, mother and sister were sent to the death camps, along with almost the entire Jewish community. Marber himself and around 200 others were saved by a German officer, Gerhard Kurzbach, who was in charge of a workshop employing forced Jewish labour. On a night in August 1942 Kurzbach required his workers to do overtime and locked the workshop gates; the following morning, when the labourers were let out, they found the ghetto empty.

(In 2012 Marber spoke at a ceremony honouring Kurzbach as one of Yad Vashem’s Righteous among the Gentiles – that is, non-Jews who saved Jews during the Holocaust, at risk of their own lives. [In 2002 my wife’s father and his wife were also so honoured.])

Marber came to the UK in 1946. He applied for a grant, studied at St Martin’s and the Royal College of Art, and became a graphic designer. In the early 1960s Marber was hired by the art director of Penguin Books, Germano Facetti, to give the Penguin crime series a new design. Marber recalls: ‘At the time Penguin cover design was in a muddle, drifting from one design to another, diluting Penguin Books’ identity, reputation and goodwill. I came to the conclusion that the cover design must unite the titles in the Penguin Crime series. This would be achieved by uniformity of all or some of the components that make up a cover …’

The photo above, top, shows some of the crime covers in the gallery of the University of Brighton, where last week I stumbled across a small exhibition devoted to Marber (but which made no mention of his background). Below the covers is the ‘Marber grid’, which was also applied to the non-fiction Pelicans and to fiction. The first three fiction covers below date from the early 1960s; the second two are from the 1970s, after the Marber grid was sidelined. I clearly remember seeing the new covers for the first time – a Saturday afternoon in the 1970s in WH Smiths in Harrogate. It felt like the end of civilisation as I knew it (it wasn’t). Thank you, Romek Marber, for furnishing a good part of my reading life so distinctively.

Footnote: Germano Facetti, the Italian-born Penguin art director who hired Marber, was himself arrested by the Germans in 1943 and survived the forced-labour camp of Mauthausen. Jan Tschichold, who was born in Leipzig in 1902 and came to Penguin in 1946 and set the text design rules for the following decades, was arrested by the Nazis in March 1933 and managed to escape to Switzerland the following August.

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