Michael Russem is a Cambridge, MA-based publisher and designer of books and more who runs Kat Ran Press. Over the past few years he has been publishing festschrifts devoted to designer-designed postage stamps and currency. The most recent is Why Stamps? by Ivan Chermayeff, in which postage and letters are part and parcel of his abstract collages. I asked Michael to tells us about the interest in these perforated little graphic gems.
The Chermayeff addition to your Philatelic series is Why Stamps? It begs the question, why are you so stuck on stamps?
I’m actually not the least bit interested in stamps. These things only interest me as overlooked examples of work by type designers and notable graphic designers. We tend to study and obsess over the work of many of these designers, and postage stamps exist in this unsexy area of design that’s been largely ignored by the design community. Imagine Bob Dylan wrote a jingle for a used car dealer in Hibbing, MN: We’d want to hear that just to know how he tackled the seemingly insignificant form—and to wonder why he thought it worthy of his time. Stamps only interest me in that they help me to understand the larger stories of these designers. If I’d found that type designers were designing thousands of cereal boxes that nobody knew about, I would have started collecting those instead. Fortunately, I’ve not found that to be the case.
How did this book come about?
When I published Postage Stamps by AIGA Medalists, I sent copies to the living Medalists featured in the book. Not long after, Ivan sent a letter of thanks. He wrote that he’d been making collages with stamps for 50 years and asked if I’d like to publish a book about them. The end. It couldn’t have been easier—and I could not be more grateful to Ivan for taking an interest and a chance on me. Now, I had a few books about Ivan’s collages already, but I had no memory of stamps and mail playing such a prominent role in them—and I’m obviously someone who’s more aware of stamps than most. It struck me that the whole is greater than the parts in Ivan’s work—and that’s not an easy thing to pull off in collage. And this begged the question, Why stamps?
What is your plan for the series into the future?
I’m always surprised that designers have written passionately and eloquently about stamps and mail. Of all the things going on in the world, it amazes me that they care. So, that’s one thing I want these books to point out: These designers cared about something so small—and no matter what they’ve written, it’s always related to larger design principles.
I’ve had stamp-related essays by Piet Zwart and Gerrit Noordzij translated into English. Leonard Baskin (a voracious philatelist) and Antonio Frasconi both wrote funny and angry observations about stamps. The very next book, though, is a new edition of Towards a Reform of the Paper Currency by Dwiggins with an introduction by Bruce Kennett. It’s a funny and lively little rant with lots of good design ideas—not just for the improvement of the design of money, but for the design of anything.
Have you identified a loyal following?
Sure. Lots of type and design obsessives, of course. And this loyal following is often letting me know about designers or new stamps I might have missed. This really is a collection built by the village.
A few years ago I implemented a sponsorship program so people can sponsor pages with stamps by their favorite designers. This certainly hasn’t brought in anything significant, but it does help me to keep on top of things as I feel I have 45 small clients who want to see this progress and evolve.
Already there is the ability to customize and personalize postage. Do you see the “Istamp” as canceling out the official stamp?
Man, I wish it would. Think of how much real work I could get done if I wasn’t so distracted by this stuff!
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