Friedlander’s life was one of near-constant shifts, both geographic and in her professional life; born in Berlin, she lived in Milan, went through a lengthy, unfulfilled process of trying for an American visa, lived in London and finally in Kinsale, Ireland. She worked across a range of contexts, from packaging, printmaking and patterns, to calligraphy, clandestine publishing and correspondence. She mixed with the likes of Noël Coward, Jan Tschichold and the Toscanini’s and was equally adept at designing book covers for Mills & Boon as she was at making black propaganda at the department for psychological warfare and forgery techniques as Britain’s Political Warfare Executive.
Born in 1903 to a Jewish family, Friedlander had studied under influential typographer Emil Rudolph Weiss at the Academy of Berlin’s Museum of Decorative Arts, and it was Weiss who introduced her to Georg Hartmann, who ran the Bauer Type Foundry. On graduating, she worked as a designer and calligrapher at Die Dame – Germany’s first illustrated lifestyle magazine for women – and until 1935, been regarded as one of Germany’s pre-eminent graphic designers.
The Reichstag’s passing of the Nuremberg Laws in September 1935, established a legal framework for the persecution of German Jews. On being informed that she was deemed as “lacking the necessary reliability and fitness to participate in the creation and dissemination of German cultural values”, and forbidden from continuing her profession, Friedlander left Berlin. From here, she moved briefly to Milan, applied for a visa to the USA, and in 1939, moved – at the time, temporarily – to London. It was here that she met Francis Meynell – a poet, printer and editor working at the advertising agency Mather and Crowther – who’d edited the Penrose Annual, a review of graphic arts, in which there was a piece on the Elizabeth typeface.
Meynell would go on to be a great advocate for Friedlander and her practice; and Katharine Meynell, Francis’ granddaughter, has taken on that legacy in an exhibition of Friedlander’s work at the Ditchling Museum of Art and Craft. Elizabeth Friedlander is the first show to focus on the designer’s practice, and, fittingly, it stems from a series of chance events, as Katharine Meynell recalls: “I came across an anthology of poetry that Elizabeth had compiled for Francis’ birthday. It was written out in her calligraphic hand but only initialled E. F. so at the time I had no way of identifying it. She had included lots of Meynell poetry, presumably to flatter Francis, by having his work next to Shakespeare’s.”
“Some years later, I was at the St. Bride’s Library researching another project, and the librarian happened to hand me a book that referenced the anthology – Pauline Paucker’s New Borders: The Working Life of Elizabeth Friedlander.” It’s from here that K. Meynell began her research into Friedlander’s life, initially for her film Elizabeth – on display at the show – and then towards the exhibition. “[Friedlander’s] story runs parallel to things that are necessary to think about again”, she says. “I’m interested in thinking about where people end up, and what becomes meaningful when you having to be constantly moving.”
In the period that Friedlander was working, although Europe had been wrecked by WW2 – literally, figuratively and economically, it was still more commonplace for every household to own, and be engaged with, “good” design. A sort-of leftover from pre-war ideals and orthodoxy: “People had very clear ideas on design, and were all writing didactic texts on what was good and what wasn’t. They were terribly certain about it and convinced that they were writing from a neutral, objective position, in a way that seems odd today.” While the impact was non-hierarchical, the certainty of opinion, and paradoxically of objectivity, kept an inferred hierarchy firmly in place. “It wasn’t a star system at that time, but there were big personalities,” says K. Meynell, and a factor that impacted Friedlander’s practice, which was very much outside of the merits of her work, was the fact she was considered “unclubable”. “She didn’t fit to the British class hierarchy, and people couldn’t make sense of her. She didn’t behave right or look right, or do right; and Francis would have been completely cool about all of that, because that was the way he was, too.”
Although there is little information available about her personal life, Friedlander catalogued and maintained her work with precision: “She clearly understood the value of her work, but there was a different idea of what the role of the designer might be. Stanley Morison – a typographer and advisor to the British Monotype Corporation – wrote on how individualism was unhelpful in design. He thought that as a printer or designer you ought to be serving the community, making things legible and elegant. Your job was to do the work, rather than announce yourself in front of it.” This was very much the way Friedlander worked, and although her practice hasn’t been widely recognised by the contemporary design ‘canon’, the Elizabeth typeface has been an ongoing critical and commercial success and her work in publishing – particularly that with Penguin – has remained popular, both in itself and via imitation. “Is it self-effacement or is that your position, which you are happy with because you know you’re doing a good job?” considers K. Meynell. And although the thinking – on designers and their position and purpose – was flawed, as it is in every era, there is still room for nostalgia: “There was a sense of the collective, which feels horribly absent at the moment.”
On her arrival in London — on a Domestic Service visa afforded to her by the Religious Society of Friends, or Quakers, who were helping people flee persecution — perhaps coaxed by the aforementioned Penrose Annual Review, Friedlander knocked on F. Meynell’s door at advertising agency Mather and Crowther, to discuss finding work as a designer. She had arrived from Milan, where she’d worked for the publishers Mondadori and Editoriale Domus, as well as with the Toscanini family. The exhibition includes various commissions from Walter, the son of the conductor Arturo Toscanini – record sleeves and labels, and letters: “There’s a fabulous letter from Walter Toscanini, a political diatribe. He felt that the King of Italy had let them all down, Churchill had let them down, everyone… Italy had become Fascist where it could have been prevented. There are several letters of his, there’s another about the beginnings of a European Union Post-War, which was really interesting”, recalls K. Meynell.
While in Milan, and with the help of the Toscanini family, she had made her first of many applications for a visa to the USA, having been offered a job by the Bauer Type Foundry who had opened a New York office. Before she could secure a visa – although she had received recommendations from Toscanini, Random House and Nöel Coward – in 1939, Italy passed fascist laws under Mussolini, and Friedlander was again forced to leave.
“The Toscanini’s were trying to help various people move to the USA. There were lots of people trying to help Friedlander get there – particularly them, but also Nöel Coward and Bauer Type had offered her work at their New York office – but immigration laws meant it wasn’t possible” says K. Meynell. “We construct the legality of individuals and it’s absolutely bonkers. Somebody being illegal is a social construction that we are complicit in.”
Back in London, Meynell had introduced Friedlander to Ellic Howe – an author writing on occultism and the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, who at the time worked for Britain’s Political Warfare Executive at Bush House, on psychological warfare and forgery techniques. He employed Friedlander as head of design and put her in charge of designing and disseminating black propaganda. She’d previously shown her political motivations making literacy books and newspapers for Italian and German prisoners of war; and in her new position, she forged Wehrmacht and Nazi stamps, ration books and other false documents for the political intelligence department.
As the war ended, and her position in the UK became more secure, Meynell continued to advocate for her and paved the way for work in both advertising and publishing, with the likes of Penguin, Mills & Boon, Linotype and Monotype. At Penguin, Friedlander worked with Jan Tschichold – who wrote the Penguin Composition Rules as head of typography and production at the publishing house. There she worked on book covers, and was responsible for a lot of their output post-war, while elsewhere she produced borders, maps and drawings for cosmetics labels: “She turned her attention to working on end and cover-papers, book ornaments and greetings cards; and applied the same technical approach she had employed in her typography, to patterns and forms, as well as in her advertising work”, says K. Meynell. “There’s an extraordinary drawing for the mechanism of a lipstick, which employs technical precision in a way that is just bonkers when you look at it. There were also tubes for hand cream, for which she was specifying the milling on the lids, as well as the labels and colour ways – all pastel shades that resemble flavours of ice cream.”
One of her ongoing jobs was the inscriptions for the Roll of Honour at Sandhurst, of the names of Commonwealth officers who had been killed during WW2: “It was virtually unheard of for someone not enrolled in military service to be allowed in, but she wrote every name in her calligraphic hand – and seemed to be good friends with her employers there.”
In the early 1960s, Friedlander moved to County Cork, Ireland, following her friend Alessandro Magri MacMahon, or Sandro – an Irish/Italian author, classics professor and fishing expert – who had also been working in the intelligence services at Bush House: “He had been driven out of Italy because of his anti-fascist activities, and then after being in London, working in intelligence and taking some work as a professor, he moved to Kinsale.” There he worked with the Irish Shark Club, and Friedlander continued to commute to London to work with the Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst while designing letterforms for the Shark Club, and other local affairs.
Friedlander died in 1984. There was little in the way of personal accords, but her professional archive went to friends in County Cork, and later to University College Cork, where it resides today. One item, a violin made in 1703, which had belonged to her mother, had travelled with her from Berlin to Milan, to London, to Kinsale, and now to Cork. It was one of the few personal items Friedlander kept when she fled Berlin, and it’s now loaned out each year to outstanding students at the Cork School of Music. The violin is on display in the exhibition, among an array of musical scores with cover designs by Friedlander. Each cover is made up of a pattern that conveys the shifting times – from repeat forms of traditional, strict, detailed line work; to abstract, loose waves; modernist jiggle marks and playful squiggles. What ties the series together is that, however hard to read, they each maintain continual cycles and loops, much like history.
All text originally published by It’s Nice That. All images courtesy of magazine and artist. All text copyright Billie Muraben.