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.)
Argentina-Brazil Economic Co-operation stamp. Country: Argentina. Year: 1988, Design: N Martin. At top of post: 50 Years of the Belgian Railway Association (SNCB) stamps. Country: Belgium. Year: 1976. Design: André Pasture
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.
EUROPA (Games and Toys) stamps. Country: Great Britain. Year: 1989. Design: Dan Fern
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).
50th Anniversary of Servicio Oficial de Radio Elétrica stamps. Country: Uruguay. Year: 1980. Design: M Battegazzore
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.