Unit’s forthcoming book on postage stamps is the first in its new Archive Series devoted to collections of graphic design artefacts. The book’s intention, say the publishers, is to celebrate “the often-neglected aesthetic and technical brilliance of postage stamps from around the world”.
The content of Graphic Stamps is sourced from the collections of Iain Follett, co-founder and design director of studio Six and Blair Thomson, founder and creative director of agency Believe in. (In the interests of full disclosure, I’ve contributed an essay on the history of stamps to the book.)
As Unit’s Adrian Shaughnessy notes in his introduction, both stamp creation and stamp collecting have natural links with graphic design, yet, while the actual design of stamps is only of cursory interest to philatelists, it is also an area that seems to suffer neglect in design circles, overshadowed by other forms such as books, record sleeves and posters.
Shaughnessy suggests that one of the problems stamp design faces is that the best work is often produced by countries not widely known for their graphic output, such as Venezuela, Bulgaria and Uruguay.
The work in Graphic Stamps, writes Shaughnessy, is a powerful exemplar of British designer David Gentleman’s theory regarding the constraints inherent to working on such a small canvas.
The artist, Gentleman suggests in Design in Miniature, is forced to be “extremely selective” and “quite ruthless in cutting out the essentials. This makes for the characteristic intensity and clarity of design in miniature; compression in space giving the same unity as compression does in the classical theatre”.
Thanks to the internet, however, the way we think about stamp design may be changing. Thomson’s popular Instagram feed @graphilately, for example, is devoted entirely to his design-led collection of stamps, while Follett’s collection – updated via @mintneverhinged – has been featured extensively on the Grain Edit blog (prior to that in January 2008 a selection formed CR’s fifth edition of our Monograph supplement).
So while online is undoubtedly providing stamps with a new audience, Unit’s book offers a chance to contextualise examples which will no doubt be of interest to designers and those with an interest in the production of graphic stamps.
Presented here is an edited version of the two interviews Shaughnessy conducted with Thomson and Follett for the book, along with a few choice examples of some of the fantastic work that features within its pages.
Adrian Shaughnessy: What criteria drive your collection?
Iain Follett: Stamp collecting is a very personal journey for every individual. At the very core it is my emotional and critical reaction to them. I look for originality, with the emphasis mostly based on simplicity, proportionality and direct semantic messages. Most of my favourite stamps use geometric elements, as well as simplicity of line, to evoke their communication.
However, I don’t only like, or collect, stamps with a modernist reductive style. Good design comes in many forms, and I try to reflect that in my collection. They can be illustrative, typographic or photographic in style. They can be minimalist or maximalist, modernist or decorative.
I’ve also found the journey extremely satisfying – especially finding new stamps that I’ve never seen before. I also get a kick out of hunting down the name of the designer. It’s not always easy to find information on stamp designers. Different countries, through different periods in their histories, kept varying levels of records, and the name of the designer is often omitted.
AS: [Blair] your Instagram feed – Graphilately – is hugely popular. How did this come about, and do you think it’s indicative of a rise in interest in stamp design?
Blair Thomson: I started posting the occasional stamp on my personal Instagram feed several years ago, and the reaction I received was overwhelmingly positive. I assume that the people who follow me share my interest in design ephemera and collectibles from the mid-century and modernist eras.
Graphilately was my way of sharing a side of myself that many of my design friends were unaware of. At the same time I wanted to raise the profile of ‘graphic philately’ and reach a much larger audience. It was just an experiment, to see if there was any interest. Because nobody was posting much on stamp design, and because most people see stamp collecting as ‘nerdy’, there was a genuine realisation that ‘Hey, these stamps are actually really beautiful!’
A year (and several thousand followers) later, The New Yorker magazine wrote an article called ‘Instagram’s Endangered Ephemera’. They featured my feed, along with a couple of other collectors’, all Instagram accounts that started as a personal treasury but that are also now valuable sources of inspiration. The article asked whether we are preserving an art form or documenting its extinction.
If Instagram is a measure of cultural participation (Instagram recently featured Graphilately as a recommended account), then the convictions of niche individualists hold a sliver of a chance to influence collective cultural change in the digital age. Long live stamps.
AS: Which countries have the best-designed stamps?
IF: It varies greatly from country to country. Some countries, like Colombia, have great designs, but they’re few and far between, whereas a country like Great Britain, or the Netherlands, has much greater consistency in its output.
There are often periods when the design standards of a country will excel. Usually this is down to the designers commissioned at that time. Venezuela is a good example of this. Between the years 1974 and 1979 the Venezuelan post office was effectively run by four designers. Three of them were Europeans: Gerd Leufert, Nedo Mion Ferrario and Santiago Pol, and the other was Venezuelan, Alvaro Sotillo.
In the period before and after their control of the Venezuelan postal service, stamp design was considerably less impressive than when they were in charge. Without doubt their European design education and influence cannot be overlooked as a prevailing factor for this, and clearly indicates how the European modernist design sensibility travelled around the world.
My favourite countries for stamp design are Brazil, Bulgaria, Canada, Cuba, Germany, Great Britain, Hong Kong, Israel, Japan, Mexico, the Netherlands and Switzerland.
AS: There are some obvious examples of star designers who have designed stamps – Wim Crouwel, David Gentleman, Lance Wyman – but do you have some favourite examples of lesser-known designers who have excelled at stamp design?
IF: From Venezuela, as I have already mentioned, I would name Gerd Leufert, Alvaro Sotillo, Nedo Mion Ferrario and Santiago Pol. From Uruguay, I’d mention Angel Medina and Fernando Álvarez Cozzi. Great Japanese designers include Fumito Otani, T Amano and more recently Takashi Shimizu.
David Consuegra is a wonderful designer from Colombia, and I’d also mention the Mexican designer Rafael Davidson, a key figure in Mexican stamp design with a vast output. G Menéndez is a great stamp designer from Cuba.
In Europe I’d mention the important Dutch stamp designer Marte Röling, and more recently Experimental Jetset, who designed the most beautiful mini-sheet featuring the new Stedelijk Museum. I’m a great admirer of Jerzy Karo, who designed stamps for Great Britain. Polish stamp designers include Wojciech Freudenreich and Karol Śliwka.
From France, I admire the prolific work of Jacques Combet, and in Germany, I’d mention Karl-Heinz Bobbe and Bruno K Wiese. In Bulgaria, Stefan Kanchev is a key figure. Yugoslavian designers I admire include Andreja Milenković and Al Daskalović. Finally, I’d like to mention the great Israeli designer Dan Reisinger.
AS: Is it true to say that stamp design is a neglected area of graphic design? If so, why do you think this might be?
IF: Within the wider world of graphic design, I think that stamp design has been somewhat overlooked and forgotten, or perhaps overshadowed by other areas, such as poster design, which is often collected by designers. I don’t think it’s ever been entirely neglected, though. I think stamp design has popped into the minds of the editors of design magazines at various times.
I suppose stamp collecting has an image problem. Many people think that stamps are boring and old, and only collected by elderly men. To some extent that is true, and the demographics, I’m sure, would back this up. But I think stamps are undervalued by designers because they are generally unaware of the fantastic array of designs out there: designs which have been forgotten about and removed from the popular consciousness. But I do feel that there is a growing resurgence of interest brought about in some part by myself and a few fellow collectors who have seen the value in the incredible designs available, and have used the advent of social media to showcase them to a global audience.
Perhaps in the past it was the sheer breadth of the subject matter that put people off looking into it, along with this ‘uncool’ perception of a stamp collector. However, the reaction I get when highlighting a stamp to fellow designers and creatives, as well as the general public, has been quite overwhelming, tinged with surprise at how many incredible designs there are. It also takes time and devotion to hunt down the design gems. Maybe stamps are seen as a bit of relic – something which will inevitably have its demise. But I’m not so sure now. People have been saying ‘print is dead’ for years, and yet it’s currently stronger and more desirable than ever.
BT: I think this is culture, primarily, but also the fact that it’s a very closed opportunity. There is typically only one client available in every country, making stamp design seem, to all who do not operate within it, like some kind of ‘dark art’. Some countries celebrate stamps more than others. Most take them for granted, and on account of their omnipresence don’t think of them as attractive creative opportunities. With the changing landscape of postal services as we know it, I could think of no better time to see a resurgence in the appreciation of stamps and stamp design.
AS: Stamps are often miracles of technical production – multiple colours, superfine detail, etc., and the best ones are brilliant examples of miniature design. What for you makes a great stamp design, and what can today’s designers learn from this?
BT: The best stamps, in my opinion, are simple and conceptual in their execution. They’re surprising and interesting – not just pretty pictures. Design in the wider context, I feel, always benefits from following these principles.
As designers we always appreciate the additional level of detail: sublime typography, special inks, embossing and foils, tactile materials, print process effects. Certainly from a collector’s perspective these add a layer of appreciation and value beyond the ordinary. But likewise, what is deemed ordinary can be beautiful, too, if the emphasis has been placed on the outcome.
Graphic Stamps: The Miniature Beauty of Postage Stamps is available to pre-order (£35, free p&p) from the Unit Editions site, uniteditions.com. Design: Spin. The interview featured here is an edited extract from the two interviews with Iain and Blair which feature in the book, used with permission.