In the late 1930s, German designer and typographer Elizabeth Friedlander was asked to create a typeface by the Bauer Foundry in Frankfurt, a unique commission for a woman at the time.
However, Friedlander’s achievement was overshadowed by political circumstances in Germany, as the Nazis rose to power.
The name of the font, originally Friedlander-Antiqua, was changed to Elizabeth-Antiqua, to avoid pointing to the creator’s Jewish origin. As the type was being cast, the talented Friedlander, who had been employed as a graphic designer for the popular German magazine Die Dame, had to leave the country after she was refused permission to work.
She moved to the equally unsettled Italy, before eventually securing a domestic service visa for Britain. In London, she was sponsored and mentored by publisher Francis Meynell and went on to have an illustrious career as a designer and calligrapher.
She worked for the newly established Penguin, designing many of their distinctive covers; carried out commissions for Sanderson wallpapers and Shell; illustrated maps for BOAC (the British state-owned airline) and was also responsible for the World War Two Roll of Honour inscriptions at Sandhurst military academy.
Although the work of Friedlander is instantly recognisable as mid-20th century design at its best, not many will be familiar with her name, even in the Cork town of Kinsale, where she moved in the 1960s.
Now her life and work is in the spotlight as a collection featuring some of her designs and personal papers has been made available to the public by UCC, where the material is held. The collection was formally launched last Thursday as part of Explore your Archives week, which runs until Sunday.
Head of research collections and communications at UCC, Crónán Ó Doibhlin, says there is a growing interest in Friedlander’s work and the university is keen to bring it to a wider audience.
“She’s known in printing and publishing circles, but not internationally known. There’s a small amount of material in other universities, including Reading, but the primary collection is in Cork, and we’ve catalogued that in the past year.
"It’s made up of her own personal correspondence and papers, but also a lot of her mark-up designs, which she created throughout her career, as well as material she created while living in Ireland — greetings cards with Irish calligraphy and so on.”
Another fascinating aspect of Friedlander’s life is that while in London, she worked for the wartime Ministry of Information’s ‘black propaganda’ unit, producing counterfeit Nazi rubber stamps, ration books and other material for the British.
The unit was led by Ellic Howe, and Ó Doibhlin believes her time there was a less than happy one for Friedlander.
“Howe was a complicated person. He was probably a bit overbearing, and may have pursued her. I don’t think Elizabeth particularly enjoyed his attention,” he says.
When the war ended, Friedlander had plans to return to Europe or head to the US but then the opportunity to work with Penguin arose.
“They were just setting up and she was employed by them for a number of years, working on some of their early cover designs, when they became a little more decorative. She designed patterned papers which were very colourful but classic.
“In the 1950s and 1960s she was responsible for the design of many of the book jackets, including the title font and the lay-out. She also designed the little Penguin logo when they were 25 years old — we have an image of that in the collection.”
Details about Friedlander’s years in Cork are sketchy. She continued to work and, although hampered by her failing eyesight, pursued her love of gardening and designed keepsakes for Kinsale crafts.
According to calligrapher Pauline Paucker, who produced a short book on Friedlander’s work, she resided in Kinsale with her “life-long companion” Alessandro MacMahon, a former lecturer who she had met in London.
However, when Paucker visited Kinsale, she was unable to find the cottage where they had lived.
Ó Doibhlin says she was very private and had a small circle of friends. These included the renowned cultural philanthropists Gerald and Sheila Goldberg, who were responsible for the donation of her collection to UCC.
The Goldbergs were also bequeathed a Klotz violin dating from 1703 which had belonged to Friedman’s mother. They in turn donated it to the Cork School of Music, where it continues to be passed down to gifted students.
Fittingly, one of the more recent recipients, Mairéad Hickey, now studies violin at the prestigious Kronberg Academy in Germany.
When Friedlander died in 1984, she was buried in the Goldberg plot in the Jewish cemetery at Curraghkippane graveyard at Kerry Pike near Cork.
Ó Doibhlin is currently helping to curate an exhibition of the Friedlander collection at the Ditchling Museum of Art and Craft in Sussex next year.
“There’s a lot of interest from academics who know her work, so the exhibition is a good opportunity for us to stretch into the international realm. The exhibition may also travel to Germany after Britain,” he says.
The exhibition is co-curated by video artist Katharine Maynell, the great-niece of Francis Maynell, who helped Friedlander when she arrived in London. Maynell has also made a short film about Friedlander called Elizabeth which was shown at the UCC launch and will also feature in the exhibition.
“Katharine came across a manuscript, handwritten for Francis for his 70th birthday, from Elizabeth,” says Ó Doibhlin.
“That activated Katharine’s interest in Elizabeth, and she came to us a year and a half ago to say she wanted to do a project. That also galvanised us to work on the collection.”
There is also a big interest in typography among the artistic community and Ó Doibhlin says Friedlander’s font is especially notable for its elegant aesthetic.
“Yes, it’s something maybe people take for granted with our reliance on computers. Friedlander’s typeface is particularly beautiful.
"The original type was thrown into the Thames in the 1950s and destroyed. An academic in the UK has recreated the original font digitally, so you can buy it from Bauer, the original company.
“It’s slightly different but when you recreate a digital font from a real one there’s always a small difference. It’s very easy on the eye, which is why people are so interested, her font is seen as one of the more high-quality fonts of the time.”