A Team of Foreign Players: Vigo Street (Westminster)

01aVigo Street (originally Vigo Lane) is a short street running between Regent Street and the junction of Burlington Gardens and Savile Row. It is named after the Anglo-Dutch naval victory over the French and Spanish in the 1702 Battle of Vigo Bay, northern Spain, during the opening years of the War of the Spanish Succession. The street has strong literary connections. Publishers John Lane and Elkin Mathews were in partnership in Vigo Street. Together they – notoriously – published The Yellow Book (volumes one and two) in 1894.


Later they founded The Bodley Head and continued to publish the work until it ceased in 1897. When the partnership ended, both publishers continued to have premises in Vigo Street. Mathews published the first editions of a number of important literary works, including Yeats’s The Wind among the Reeds in 1899 and James Joyce’s Chamber Music in 1907.


The story of Penguin Books is well-known – in part at least. Its creator Allen Lane had learned the book trade at The Bodley Head, no. 8 Vigo Street, where he was employed by his uncle John. He became a director of the firm when John Lane died in 1925 and was appointed chairman in 1930 while still in his twenties. In 1934, returning from a weekend in Devon, he was upset to find nothing in the Exeter station bookstall that was worth reading on his journey back to London. He decided to re-publish quality titles in cheap paperbacks and settled for the name Penguin Books.

The covers were to be green for detective stories, orange for fiction, and blue for non-fiction, with the title in plain lettering on a broad white band across the middle. He adopted an alternative approach to typography and cover design by appointing Jan Tschichold (born Johannes Tzschichhold on 2 April 1902 at Leipzig) as his typographer.


After Hitler’s election in Germany, all designers had to register with the Ministry of Culture. Soon after Johannes had taken up a teaching post at the Munich school for German master printers, he was denounced as a ‘cultural bolshevist’. He and his family were placed in ‘protective custody’, but they escaped to Basel where he worked as a freelance typographer. He stayed in Switzerland for most of his life and became a master of his art.


Between 1947 and 1949 he lived at the Old Mill House, Mill Road, West Drayton, working on the typographical re-design of Penguin Books by imposing on its printers high standards of design and page make-up, consistent with mass production. He was also an accomplished designer of type. Sabon (1966/7) remains to this day one of the most popular typefaces for bookwork. Allen Lane’s venture proved successful. On New Year’s Day 1936 he created Penguin Books as a separate company. In 1950 a leader in The Times saluted him for making up for the loss of Empire by using the English language and classy paperbacks to spread British influence worldwide in a form that was less objectionable, but just as powerful as the earlier imperialism. To any non-British observer such statements remain incomprehensible, because in reality the creation of Penguin and the wider flourishing of post-war publishing in Britain was a truly cosmopolitan affair through the active participation of refugees from the Continent.


Typographer Hans Schmoller was born on 9 April 1916 in Berlin into a Jewish family. His father was an eminent paediatrician and a pioneer of infant welfare clinics. Having finished his early education in 1933, he intended to study art history but university entry was banned for Jews. Instead he began an apprenticeship as compositor in the Jewish book-printing firm of Siegfried Scholem. From October 1937 to February 1938 he attended a course at the Monotype Technical School, London. Knowing that he could not return to Germany (both his parents died in concentration camps), he accepted a job at the Evangelical Missionary Society in Basutoland (now Lesotho) as manager of its press. He established a reputation as a fine designer and typographer throughout South Africa where he was co-founder of the Imprint Society for the Advancement of the Graphic Arts. He was interned from July 1940 to April 1942 as an enemy alien.


He moved to London in 1947 where he was appointed manager of the bindery and assistant to Oliver Simon at The Curwen Press, Plaistow. There he designed many handsome catalogues and book jackets. In 1949 he replaced Jan Tschichold as typographer at Penguin Books and acted as head of production from 1956. From 1960 to his retirement in 1967 he was a director of the company. During his Penguin years Schmoller played a crucial role in post-war British typography. Some of his outstanding achievements include Buildings of England (written by the historian Nikolaus Pevsner, himself a Jewish immigrant) and The Complete Pelican Shakespeare.


London in the 1950s liberated British artists. The Bohemian underworlds of Fitzrovia and Soho were brimming over with ideas and movements: Neo-Romanticism, Social Realism, Pop Art, the Kitchen Sink School, Abstract Expressionism and others. Soho symbolised the energy of a city in intellectual and artistic ferment after the shell-shock of war. In the midst of it all were large numbers of displaced refugee intellectuals and artists who were desperate to build up a new career and identity.


London turned into a cosmopolitan melting pot. Situated on the corner of Old Compton Street and Dean Street, Café Torino was a favoured spot for many of the political and art sects prevalent in London in the mid-1950s. Its marble-topped tables were home to exiled Spanish Republicans, anarchists and communists plotting the overthrow of Franco. To them the house was known as the ‘Madrid’. Above all, it stood as a testament to the enduring influence of cafés on the creative life of post-war Britain. Cafés like Torino were part of the birth of British ‘cool’. Torino had been run by the Italian Minella family since before the war. Officially it was a restaurant serving pizza, spaghetti and risotto, but clients could talk for hours over a small cup of coffee without being disturbed. One of its regulars was Germano Facetti.


Graphic designer Facetti was born on 5 May 1926 in Milan. He was arrested in 1943 by the Germans as a member of the resistance and for putting up anti-Fascist posters. He was deported to the labour camp of Mauthausen, Austria, which he survived. There he met Lodovico di Belgiojoso who later invited him to join his BBPR architectural partnertship in Milan (another partner Gianluigi Banfi had died in the camp). He moved to London in 1952 where he took evening classes in typography at the Central School of Art & Design. By the late 1950s he was art director at Aldus Books, Fitzrovia, and working as an interior designer. His planning for the Poetry Bookshop in Soho motivated Allen Lane, director of Penguin, to hire his services in 1960.


Facetti was instrumental in re-designing the Penguin line, in particular Penguin Classics, introducing photo-typesetting, the ‘Romek Marber grid’, offset-litho printing, and photography to their paperback covers, that set the benchmark for exemplary design in the publishing world. He helped establish the Design and Art Directors Association in London in 1963. Working at Penguin until 1972 (when he returned to Milan), his book covers gave an unmatched visual impact to a series of paperbacks that would make a lasting impact on British cultural life.

Romek Marber was born in Poland on 25 October 1925 into a Jewish family. In 1939, he was deported to the Bochnia ghetto. In 1942, Marber was saved from being sent to the Belzec death camp by Gerhard Kurzbach (a commander who is credited with saving many Jews). He eventually arrived in Britain in 1946. He followed a course in Commercial Art at St Martin’s School of Art in the early 1950s and attended the Royal College of Art in 1953.


During the late 1950s, his work for The Economist impressed Penguin’s art director Germano Facetti who, in 1961, commissioned him to design covers for Simeon Potter’s Our Language and Language in the Modern World. Facetti has taken credit for the re-styling of Penguin books during that decade, but the essential new look of modern Penguins was the work of Romek Marber. Facetti asked Marber to submit a proposal for a new cover approach for the Penguin Crime series. His arrangement was adopted for much of the rest of the Penguin line giving that publisher its distinctive visual unity throughout the 1960s and 1970s. Marber retired in 1989, becoming a Professor Emeritus of Middlesex University.

A German ‘cultural bolshevist’, an Italian communist, a German and a Polish Jew – these refugees created the iconic look of a famous publishing institution. Penguin was (and remains) a great British team in the premier league of culture – most of its star players had been foreigners.