Monday 22 September 2014

More London - a little bit of Manhattan beside the Thames

View of the Shard, early morning
More London is the name given to the stretch of land between London Bridge and Tower bridge on the south side of the River Thames and to the north of Bermondsey. More London is home to many cafes, restaurants and coffee shops, most of them chains, but all of them busy with the office workers and tourists here for the area's major tourist sites - Borough Market, Tower Bridge, HMS Belfast and great views across the river to the Tower of London, the Gherkin and the city skyline. 

The quarter also has a branch of the Hilton Hotel and hosts both City Hall and the Unicorn Theatre, unofficially known as the national theatre for children. The Shard, Europe's tallest building with its stunning views of London is just across the road from More London as is London Bridge Station, one of the busiest transport interchanges in the country. This development has grown up in the last ten years and transformed this part of the city. I have worked in and around this area on and off since 1988 when there were few shops, very few visitors and the only hotels in the area were hostels for homeless men that gave off an overpowering smell of bleach, urine and cigarettes. I know this because my work used to take me into the hostels to encourage the residents to use the Council's public library service. 

Corners, angles and a glimpse of Tower Bridge
The extensive use of glass makes for interesting reflections and shadows
Do I like More London? Yes, I do. Its where I buy my lunch on work days. And it also has some great architecture with it's tall buildings, sudden views of the Shard, Tower Bridge and the Tower of London through its alleyways, shadows, reflections, sharp edges and on some days, sudden gusts of wind that tare down the alleyways and leave ripples on the water in the small man made channel that runs through the main alley. Water plays a big part here.  There are mini-fountains outside the Strada restaurant that young children like to run in and out of whilst the already mentioned channel seems to be an irresistible temptation to them to remove socks and shoes and paddle in the water. The water table outside Cafe Nero is also popular and tourists like to pose beside it for photographs. Occasionally and inexplicably, some people decide to sit on it for a photograph, perhaps not realising that the table is covered in real water and they are left to walk around in wet pants all day!

The architecture is the work of a range of companies including Foster and partners. The photographs were taken either when collecting my strong black coffee on my way to work or at lunchtime when I go back for more!

Look up!
I love this sharp corner
Tower Bridge and the water channel
More London

Sunday 14 September 2014

Abram Games - graphic design genius at London's Jewish Museum

London's Jewish Museum in Camden is currently staging an exhibition on the life and work of graphic designer Abram Games. Born in 1914 in Whitechapel to Russian Jewish immigrants, Joseph and Sarah Gamse (not Games), he was to become one of the most influential graphic designers of the 20th century.

Zoo/ tiger for London Transport, 1975. Lithograph.
Joseph Gamse worked as a photographic processor in his studio below the family flat in Hackney's Lower Clapton Road. The young Abram (at that time called Abraham) used his father's artists materials to entertain  himself. Only an average school student he failed the 11 plus examination in 1925 before Sarah persuaded his father to pay for him to attend Hackney Downs boys school which had a reputation for helping working class boys achieve in medicine, business, laws and other professions. It also produced artists Leon Kossof, playwright Harold Pinter and actor Stephen Berkoff. Our hero appears to have not done too well at Hackney Downs - one report describing his drawing as "weak", his writing as 'poor" and his general demeanour as "lazy and indifferent". The formidable Sarah visited the school to put the head teacher right on this!

In 1926 Abraham changed his named by deed poll from "Gamse" to the more English sounding "Games" and adopted Abram rather than Abraham as his forename. He had a desire to attend art school but failed to secure a scholarship and so, somewhat reluctantly, his parents paid for him to attend St. Martin's School of Art. He left St. Martin's after two terms, doubting his ability and disillusioned with his fellow students and teachers. 

Evening classes, 1935. Lithograph.
Abram worked for his father by day and by night designed cards for tradesmen and posters for his own portfolio. In 1932 he took a job at Askew Yonge,  a commercial art studio to supplement the family income. He also began to enter poster design competitions, taking second place (and three guineas) in the Health and Cleanliness Council poster competition and winning the London County Council (LCC) Evening Classes competition - and a very welcome twenty pounds. His winning design attracted some criticism from the press for being "too Germanic" and even "monstrous". There is something menacing about the figure with receding forehead and the L of LCC being used as a finger against his cheek, indicating thought, but I rather like it. It is certainly of its time, shows strong European influences and was probably way ahead of anything a staid local authority would commission in 1932 - but he won.

Rebellious and disruptive at work he had several disagreements with his employers including about who owned the copyright on work completed in his own time he was dismissed from Askew Yonge in 1936. He spent the next several months touting his portfolio around several agencies before securing work with London Transport following an article on his work in Art and Industry magazine. His relationship with London Transport was to go on until 1975 and included perhaps his most well known work - the poster for London Zoo featured at this top of this post. His first poster for the company was A Train Every 90 Seconds, published in 1937 in simple black, red and white and very much in the then contemporary modernist style, making use of the underground symbol with a dark swirl indicating the train coming in to the station. 

Poster for London Transport, 1937. Lithograph
In June 1940, Abram was conscripted into the army, training for three months before being placed in the Hertfordshire Regiment. Spotted drawing caricatures of officers during a Christmas show, he was given work as a draughtsman, producing maps and plans. Living in barracks in 1941 and concerned about the lack of health and hygiene information he produced a series of instructional posters encouraging servicemen (and women) to be more health conscious. This led to his producing a poster to support recruitment to the Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS). The poster showed an extremely glamorous young woman - blonde with bright red lipstick and pencilled in eyebrows, face half in shadow looking into the distance above the simple message "Join the ATS". This image became the subject of controversy. Referred to as "the blonde bombshell", it was deemed too daring and in October 1941 Parliament demanded it not be reprinted, ironic given that the purpose of the campaign was to dispel the dowdy image of the ATS and attract more women to the service. Amusingly, the Conservative MP, Thelma Cazalet Keir was one of the strongest objectors saying "Women should be attracted into the army by patriotism, not glamour! This poster is better suited to advertise beauty products". 

Another significant Games war-time poster was Serve as a soldier vote as a citizen, produced in 1944, encouraging soldiers to register for the vote, doing their democratic as well wartime duty. The design shows the future of the country in the hands of servicemen and women holding the voting pencil which forms the tower of Big Ben at the Houses of Parliament. The red, white and blue clouds, references to the national flag emphasise the patriotic duty of voting.

ATS, 1941. Lithograph.
Serve as a soldier,vote as a citizen, 1944. Lithograph.
After the war, Games returned to civilian life, working as a freelance designer and lecturing in graphic design at the Royal College of Art. In 1945, he met and married Marianne Salfeld, grand daughter of the former Chief Rabbi of Hesse. Together with her family, Marianne had left Germany in 1937. Their first child, Daniel was born in 1946 and shortly before the birth of their second child, Sophie in 1948, the family moved to a house in Golders Green. This was to be Abram's home and workplace for the rest of his life

Games' postwar years were very busy. He was involved in a number of Jewish charities and organisations and produced several works aimed at raising awareness of the plight of Jewish refugees in Europe. One of the most haunting is reproduced below - Give clothing for liberated Jewry, for the British Jewish Relief Committee. The large sunken eye of the figure looks directly at the viewer whilst the red and black background may be intended as a reference to the furnaces of the death camps.

Despite the events of the War, anti-semitsim was still prevalent and the then British government at first refused to make provision for Jewish refugees, saying they were the responsibility of their "own" governments in Europe. Those governments were often the same people who had often at best stood back and ignored the events of the war and at worst actively participated in the Holocaust. Games was outspoken in his opposition to anti-semitism, demonstrated by his actions when seeing a nazi flag flying from a building in Swiss Cottage in 1948.  Leaping from the bus he was on at the time he climbed to the first floor of the building and tore the flag down. 

His interest in Jewish issues included support for the young state of Israel re-established in 1948. The Israel Philatelic Department held a competition to design a stamp to commemorate Independence Day in 1950. Games won the competition, visited the country instead of accepting prize money and was invited to design a stamp for the Maccabiah Games during his stay. He was no newcomer to stamp design having been responsible for one of the stamps  produced to celebrate the 1948 London Olympic Games. He went on to design another six Israeli stamps and back home continued his work with Jewish organisations large and small.

Give clothing for liberated Jewry, 1945. Lithograph.
Perhaps his finest moment came when his proposal for the emblem for the 1951 Festival of Britain was accepted and was used not only on posters and printed materials but also on items as diverse as chocolate, soap, toilet paper and mousetraps, not to mention being sown into floor beds and drawn into chalk hills. He said that his design was influenced by his wife hanging out the family washing - note the red, white and blue bunting hanging on the line beneath the main symbol! The Festival was intended to showcase the nation's achievements and drive for economic recovery following the Second World War and his design was seen by the millions of visitors. It lives on now in exhibitions such as that at the Jewish Museum and in the many books produced on his life and work. 

Perhaps due to having spent his early years seeing the poverty of Whitechapel, he was a lifelong socialist, demonstrated by his work to promote health care and education. He was also deeply influenced by his Judaism witnessed by his work for Jewish charities and organisations. Artistically, he was impressed by the designs of the Bauhaus in Germany, the de Stijl movement in the Netherlands  and work originating in the Soviet Union from the likes of Kandinsky and El Lissitzky. Like many creative people of his generation he was not limited to one medium. As well as posters, publicity and stamps he also designed a number of book covers for Penguin paperbacks and tried his hand at inventions related to the printing process and to improving coffee makers (!). Examples of these, family photographs, school reports, letters and many other posters can be seen in the current exhibition which runs until 4th January 2015. I was especially moved by his final letter to his grandson written shortly before his death in 1996 in which his love for both art and family is clear and touching. Oh, and if you use Stockwell Station you may well have seen or even stood beside one of his designs - the Swan - a blue and white ceramic work on the platform of the Victoria Line - which will be the subject of a future Picture Post. 

Festival of Britain, 1948. Lithograph.

Thursday 11 September 2014

Essex Art Deco - Frinton Park Estate

Frinton-on-sea is a small coastal town in Essex, just one and a half hours by train from London. It is well-known for its long, curved beach and the almost 1,000 beach huts that line its promenade. The main street, Connaught Avenue, has several cafes and restaurants (including a great ice cream shop called Pop-pins), a book shop, a shop selling art deco objects and vintage clothing as well as a number of other stores.

Slightly less well known, but the reason for my recent visit, is its collection of art deco buildings constructed between 1934 and 1936 and located a short walk from the centre of the town, on the Frinton Park Estate. The Estate was to be part of a grand plan for up to 1,000 modernist buildings devised and designed by the slightly eccentric architect Oliver Hill. Returning from a holiday in Europe, enthused by the modernist architecture he had seen, Hill's proposal for Frinton included a new shopping centre, train station, town hall and school in addition to residential properties. He also drew up designs for a hotel that was to have been built in the under cliff and the estate information bureau. The information bureau was realised and survives today as a residential property called the Round House which, I understand, has a wonderful mosaic floor made from Poole Pottery depicting Hill's plans for the town.

Unfortunately Hill's grand scheme did not come to fruition as the company building the estate went into liquidation in 1935 having built less than twenty properties. However, these houses, and later additions built in a similar style still stand and attract many architecture fans each year. It is a pleasure to stroll along Audley Way, Waltham Way and Graces Walk admiring these pristine white and very well maintained buildings. In a few cases, red window frames, yellow doors or grey decorative features over the main door add a touch of colour and extra class to the houses. Those overlooking the sea are particularly striking with towers, long balconies, curves and portholes. Above all else, they are very large. The estate is on private land and only residents are allowed to park, but it is easy to stroll around and no-one seemed to mind my taking photographs.

The planned shopping centre never materialised, Frinton Park Court which stands on the junction of Central Avenue and Walton Road was designed as retail space and a dress shop and a bakery stood there for ten months before closing in 1935 due to lack of business and distance from the rest of the town. It was used for some years as a meeting place for a local Masonic Lodge but is currently in a very poor state of repair with an uncertain future. It is interesting that the estate attracts so many architectural enthusiasts today but was looked down on in the 1930's by some of the more established Frinton residents as being not quite the thing. The town also has a number of Arts and Crafts style houses (a style originally favoured by Hill), some designed by the great Charles Voysey - another reason for a day trip.

Hill was a bit of a character. Apparently a keen naturist, he also drove a pink Rolls Royce. Both an architect and a landscape gardener, he designed the art deco style Midland Hotel in Morecambe, built in  1932, was responsible for one of the stands at the British Empire Exhibition in 1924 and Joldwynds, another stunning art deco house in Holmbury St. Mary, Surrey, built in 1932 for a the first Baron Greene. The hotel he had planned for fronton was to have been a near replica of the Midland but unfortunately it was never built. His greatest achievement is generally believed to be Landfall, at Poole in Dorset with its references to a luxury liner. Landfall was completed just before the Second World War and was Hill's last major work.

Its a great shame his grand scheme for Frinton-on-sea did not fully materialise but the houses that were built give a hint of what might have been and together with the pretty main street and attractive sea front make the town a greta place to visit for the day. 

Wednesday 3 September 2014

Secret Paris

One of my favourite travel experiences is to wander around a city happening upon unexpected places. On my recent visit to Paris, I did some strolling in the 14th and 15th arrondissements as well as the more central neighbourhoods and found some new favourite places away from the main tourist centres.

I discovered a little street called Villa Santos-Dumont after having been to see the Groupe Scolaire and College Modigliani at Rue Cherbourg. Purely by chance, I wandered into this little piece of Parisian paradise with its beautiful trees, whitewashed buildings and artists'  houses. The area was once a vineyard and the street still has a country village feel to it. Designed by architect Raphael Paynot and built in 1926 it was originally named Villa Chauvelot, going on to acquire its current name in 1943 in honour of the Brazilian aviator Alberto Santos-Dumont. It attracted a number of artists already resident in Montparnasse including Ossip Zadkine (who lived at number 3), Fernand Leger  (number 4), Viktor Brauner (number 10 bis) and Malvina Hoffman (number 25). Villa Santos-Dumont was a real find - quiet and peaceful and full of houses and studios where it was very easy to imagine sitting reading, listening to music and enjoying coffee and good bread (or possibly cakes). The only company I had was a sleek, brown coloured and not entirely friendly Abyssinian cat keeping guard over one of the doorways.

Villa Santos-Dumont, 15th arrondissement, Paris
Inviting entrance to one of the houses in Villa Santos-Dumont
Having had an early start, I was hungry and had lunch at Besame Mucho, a small Mexican restaurant at 60 Rue des Morillons, just around the corner from the Villa. Decorated in bright colours that reminded me of my time in Mexico City last year, I was drawn in by the mention of quesadillas on the menu displayed in the window. Mexican food in London  can be a real disappointment - its often very oily and lacks the sharpness of the real thing. No such trouble at Besame Mucho, probably because the restaurant is owned by a very friendly Mexican couple, Paul and Desiree, who have lived in Paris for 12 years and cook for their guests as they would cook for themselves.  Desiree told me they had also lived in London and reminisced about some of the time spent on the Northern Line in the old "misery line" days. As well as my delicious cheese quesadillas I enjoyed a very light flan and a couple of strong coffees before going on my way. The restaurant, which is decorated with Mexican artefacts and pictures has a varied menu of real Mexican dishes and is very much recommended.

Besame Mucho restaurant, 60 Rue des Morillons, 15th arrondissement, Paris

House in Square Montsouris, 14th arrondissement, Paris
I visited a Le Corbusier building in the 14th arrondissement - the house and studio of the artist Amadeo Ozenfant on Avenue Reille.  Square Montsouris is a beautiful, private street (despite being called a square) adjacent to Avenue Reille and takes its name from the nearby Parc Montsouris. Built between 1920 and 1930, several of the buildings have at least some art deco features whilst others have elements  from the earlier art nouveau period including decorative ceramic details. In addition to Ozenfant having lived on the corner in the Le Corbusier building, the square has been home to a number of other artists including Tsugouharu Fujita who lived there in 1928 whilst Roger Bissiere was a resident during the 1930's. Like Villa Santos-Dumont, the square is very green and has the feel of a village rather than a street in one of the world's busiest cities. The park is at the end of the square and is a good place to sit for a while after a morning spent exploring the area. After visiting the square and the adjacent Rue Georges Braque which has a couple of great modernist buildings, I enjoyed a rest and a drink at Cafe Chin Chin,  on Avenue Reille, a small cafe bar opposite the park with good opportunities for people watching.

Wood fronted house in Square Montsouris
I found a third Parisian secret when visiting the Musee Mendjisky Ecoles de Paris in Square Vergennes, another private street. As well as being home to the beautiful modernist museum designed by Robert Mallet-Stevens  it also has a number of interesting private homes, some with deco features. My favourite private home in Square Vergennes is located at the very end of the street (which like Square Montsouris is not really a square!). The facade is rendered in cement with white details including stars at the upper level where there is also a blue panel and blue diamond shapes. The blue and white theme is also played out on the ground floor with a blue line following the outlines of the doors and windows. All that I have been able to find out about the building is that it dates from 1927, so if anyone knows anything else, please let me know in the comments box!

23 Square Vergennes, 15th arrondissement, built 1927. Architect unknown.
My other discoveries relate to food! To be more precise they relate to cake What else? I visited the wonderful Paris 1900 exhibition at the Petit Palais - arriving an hour before the museum opened on the Saturday morning after not managing to get in the day before as the queue snaked around the building. After seeing the exhibition and after browsing the museum shop, I wanted coffee and cake. I had noticed an external passage with ceiling paintings behind the main reception area and went to investigate before searching for a cafe. Entering the passage, not only did I see a sign for a cafe but also a beautiful garden with ponds surrounded by blue and gold painted ceramic tiles. The terrace cafe has great views of the Palais' exquisite and very Parisian dome. The cafe did not disappoint either. Good coffee, macaroons, tiny pain au raisin and a mango cream were all very acceptable and reasonably priced by Paris standards. Of course, there were two of us and not all of the treats were for me! Honest.

Dome of the Petit Palais, Avenue Winston Churchill, 8th arrondissement.
Detail from the pool in the courtyard of the Petit Palais
Painted ceiling of the terrace passage, Petit Palais
Despite the many changes of recent years, some of them not for the better, I still love the Marais. One of the recent developments that I most certainly do approve of is L'eclair de genie, an eclair shop in Rue Pavee. I have seen queues outside the shop, so its clearly no longer a secret with its selection of  passion fruit and mango, raspberry, pistachio and of course chocolate and coffee eclairs. Some have gold leaf on the icing! The eclairs are not cheap at 4.5 euros each but they are little works of art that are worth splashing out on. A little further along the Rue Pavee there is another gem - the Synagogue of the Rue Pavee, designed by Hector Guimard and built in 1913.

Works of art at L'eclair de Genie, Rue Pavee, 4th arrondissement.
Finally, a picture that demonstrates Parisian eccentricity - also in the Marais. Strolling along Rue des Francs Bourgeois I could see a crowd gathering and hear music playing before seeing the character in the picture below. There's always something different in Paris…

You might also like Villa Seurat, a Parisian secret and A House of tiles in Paris