Designer Hans Unger given a hands-on show at the Highgate Society

The artist’s friends have helped to bring his genius out of hiding, celebrating his humour and creativity, says Alison Oldham.

Hands were a vital part of the visual vocabulary of designer Hans Unger, whose centenary is celebrated by an intriguing exhibition at the Highgate Society opening on Saturday. He employed them to great effect in his iconic mid 20th century posters, including an early success for the Royal Mail Group in 1949, showing three hands carefully packing a parcel. His most enduring image may be the ominous giant pointing finger in his 1965 Keep Britain Tidy poster.

Unger also made good use of the expressive powers of hands in his private life. According to Naomi Games, daughter of renowned designer Abram Games, a friend of Unger’s remembers that in his red sports car he kept a pair of cut-out hands with signals written on either side. “Dependent on the situation his ‘hand’ would indicate ‘thanks’ or ‘you bastard’!” says Naomi.

Her father was close to Unger and thought him one of Britain’s most versatile and individual designers. Naomi is part of the group of family friends who have devised this exhibition. It has works from their own collections along with posters, Penguin book covers and ephemera, plus some of his smaller mosaics and digital displays of larger murals made in co-operation with Eberhard Schulze.

Unger had an eventful life before settling in 1948 in Highgate, where he lived first in Shepherd’s Hill, then in Muswell Hill Road. Born to Jewish parents in Germany in 1915 he studied poster design in Berlin. In 1936 he went to live in South Africa, joined the army and was taken prisoner by the Germans at Tobruk but escaped from POW camp in Italy and trekked across Europe mostly on foot.

Mosaic and stained glass were interests that Unger developed in the Fifties. He incorporated the look of both in posters. His designs for murals and glass became more abstract and simpler as he gained confidence, according to Naomi. In the late 60s/early 70s, Unger designed five tiled murals for Victoria Line stations, including Oxford Circus and Green Park.

These can still be enjoyed but other projects have suffered neglect and ill-use. His paean to Hampstead Heath on a summer’s day, the Royal Free Hospital wall mosaic designed in 1973 and installed in 1975 shortly after his death, is now partly hidden by a hospital Friends’ information desk.

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For Unger’s friends Marius Reynolds and Peter Sand, disappointment that this fine work of art is shown to such disadvantage was a spur to mounting the exhibition. Neil Jaworski and Robin Pyburn also assisted in organising this tribute to a man whose intelligence, creativity and sense of humour won him many admirers.

From Saturday until October 25 at 10A South Grove N6. Saturday 10am to 6pm, Sunday and Tuesday 3pm to 6pm, Thursday 4pm to 8pm.