The son of émigré Russian Jews, Abram Games always considered himself a cockney as he was born within the sound of Bow Bells on 29th July 1914. At the age of eleven his school report stated that his drawing skills were weak. When he persuaded his parents to allow him to leave the Grocers’ Company School in Hackney, the headmaster brutally told him that he didn’t have the talent to be an artist. After two disillusioned terms at St Martin’s School of Art, Games abandoned the idea of further formal art training, yet in 1935 he won the first prize in a London County Council poster competition to promote evening classes.
Games developed extraordinary skill with an airbrush enabling him to create subtlety of effect and mood. ‘He uses it like a pencil’ observed David Gentleman RDI. Ashley Havinden RDI, in his 1948 paper on the effect of advertising given at the Royal Society of Arts (RSA), said of Games that he ‘created an amalgam of graphic force and simplicity. It is “an art of interruption” of a high order, because the “means” of attracting our attention are also the “end” of the poster’. Once he had established himself as a freelance designer Games designed posters for Shell, the General Post Office and the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents (RoSPA), among others. His first poster for London Transport, with the message ‘a train every 90 seconds’, appeared in 1937 and his last, advertising London Zoo in 1976. His circle of friends included future RDIs Tom Eckersley, Hans Schleger, F.H.K. Henrion and George Him.
With his career put on hold with the outbreak of the Second World War Games joined the army as an infantry private. He complained to Jack Beddington, then in the Ministry of Information, about the lack of design in the army’s poster campaigns. Shortly afterwards Games was transferred to the War Office, promoted to corporal, and appointed Official War Poster Designer. From 1942 to 1946 he produced around 100 educational and instructional wartime posters. He also volunteered to design, free of charge, badges, posters and banners for the Jewish Committee for Relief Abroad.
In 1946 he resumed his freelance practice and created advertising campaigns for British Overseas Airways Corporation, British European Airways, Guinness, Murphy Television and book jackets for Penguin Books. For the Financial Times he conceived the ‘Manewspaper’ series of posters and, in 1953, he won the competition to design the first animated identity for the BBC television service. Later he incorporated the symbol designed by Hans Schleger RDI, in a poster announcing the opening of the Design Centre (1956). The logo for the Queen’s Award for Industry (1965) was also his work. Stamps demonstrated his ability to work on a smaller scale, from his design for the 1948 Olympic Games to a prize winning set of tourist stamps for Jersey (1974).
Three of his wartime posters were exhibited at Britain Can Make It (1946), but he is best remembered for his emblem for the Festival of Britain (1951). His design for ‘Britannia’ came first in the competition and it was used on many official publications, signs and souvenirs – she also appeared on the Festival stamp. The South Bank area of London still continues to use this emblem in their publicity.
The Ben Uri Gallery held his first solo poster show in the UK in 1951. Graphic designer, Derek Birdsall RDI, in his review of the Design Museum’s retrospective exhibition (1990), said that while he was still a student in 1953 he had been employed by Games for six weeks to help with some typography. This gave him the opportunity to see Games at work at his easel teasing out the taut and visual message he wished to convey. Birdsall added that if you covered up the copy on most of the posters ‘you find that the message is the image’.
Every Monday, from 1946 to 1953, Games lectured at the Royal College of Art (RCA). After his retirement he still retained an interest in education. Following Richard Guyatt’s talk at the RSA in 1972, on the subject of teaching in art schools, Games expressed his concerns at the emphasis placed by the RCA on ‘mass thinking and mass expression’. He felt that students should be encouraged to develop their own resources in order to become independent thinkers, to discover individual expression. The RCA appointed him an Honorary Fellow in 1992. In his talk at the RSA on ‘The Poster in Modern Advertising’ (1962), chaired by his old friend, F.H.K. Henrion RDI, Games expressed concern that ‘if British poster design was to progress farther’ then the art schools had to improve as training grounds. ‘A new generation must experiment, make mistakes and evolve its own poster form in its own way…learning from the past but never being tied to it. He also foretold that posters on hoardings would be replaced by giant flashing screens, able to withstand all weather and graffiti.
Games designed the Cona table coffee maker in 1947. It went into production two years later and reworked in 1959, it quickly became a design classic. Other inventions included a circular vacuum cleaner and an early 1960s portable duplicating machine for Gestetner. Games was awarded an OBE in 1957, the Society of Industrial Artists and Designers President’s Medal in 1960, the Designers and Art Directors Association President’s Award (1991) and appointed a Royal Designer for Industry (RDI) in 1959. Presenting the new RDIs to the RSA the Master, Robert Goodden spoke of Games as ‘the undisputed leader in British poster design…whatever the subject presented to him, he seems to see straight to the heart of the matter and to find…the simple yet arresting visual symbol which will rivet attention, at once and lastingly’. To mark the 40th anniversary of the Festival in 1991 Games revisited ‘Britannia’ when he designed the menu card for the RDI Faculty dinner. Her outline is not so sharp, she has a double chin and is wearing pearls but there is no mistaking Games hand in this design. Robin Day RDI remembered Games as being a kind and sympathetic man who was ‘very perceptive and quite fearless in expressing his high principles over anything concerning design or matters to do with the philosophy or organization of the RDI’.
Games wrote an obituary for his friend and fellow RDI, F.H.K. Henrion, for the RSA Journal in 1990. Six years later his own obituary appeared in the Journal written by Professor Alan and Isabella Livingston.
Abram Games died in London at the age of 82 on 27th August 1996.
Britain Can Make It Exhibition Catalogue 1946
- Group D: Books and Printing – items 161c, 161d, 161e
Naomi Games & Brian Webb, Abram Games. Design (Suffolk: Antique Collectors Club, 2013)
Catherine Moriarty, June Rose and Naomi Games, Abram Games: His Life and Work (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2004)
Original image reference: GB-1837-DES-DCA-30-1-POR-G-3-1. Photograph by Sam Lambert. Design Council Archive, University of Brighton Design Archives.