‘Alphabetilately’: Going Postal in the Capital City
In today’s chaos of digital stimuli, a passion for stamps might strike some as being as outdated as ration books and decoder rings. But to those in the know, stamps are an art form like no other, connecting us with our shared history through one of the tiniest artistic mediums there is.
- Exhibit catalog
When the Smithsonian National Postal Museum in Washington DC wanted to mark its 15th anniversary in 2008 with a special exhibit, they turned to San Francisco’s Michael Osborne Design (MODSF) to revisit a fun and educational cross-media exhibit concept he’d originally pitched nearly a decade ago – and one with a nearly unpronounceable name.
D is for Details
The first thing you learn about philately (fuh-latt-ul-ee), the study of stamps, is that it’s very easy to get lost in the details. And the story of this exhibit is no exception.
To instill a fascination for all-things-postal, the museum decided to present an A-Z exhibit Osborne and writer/stamp enthusiast Alyson Kuhn pitched nearly 10 years earlier. “F,” for example, would stand for “First” – as in the first stamp ever issued – and so on.
The idea was based on a painstakingly researched slideshow presentation developed by philatelist Bill Senkus in the mid-1990s, which was later dubbed Alphabetilately. The concept was later transformed into a lavish promotional book in 1999, Ephemera Philatelica, (above) written by Alyson Kuhn and designed by Michael Osborne for Dickson’s, a specialty printer in Atlanta.
“Practically every printing technique is in there,” says Osborne. “Four-color process, PMS colors, foil stamping, embossing and diecutting, perforation, engraving and letterpress – it’s a printing tour de force.” (Extremely popular in the stamp and graphic design communities, Dickson’s actually sold copies of the self-promo volume.)
Kuhn approached 26 members of AIGA’s San Francisco chapter to each create a “Cinderella” stamp – a fanciful piece of postage without monetary value – for one of the letters of the alphabet. Osborne chose “M” for “Mulreadys” – elaborately decorated prepaid letter sheets and envelopes from 19th century Great Britain.
The project was so successful, it inspired Kuhn and Osborne to pitch an exhibit based on this concept to the postal museum, but the proposal was turned down for budgetary and other reasons.
W is for Waiting
“I don’t know many graphic designers who aren’t enthralled with, or at least somewhat interested in, stamp design,” says Osborne. “They’re miniature pieces of art that tell our nation’s history.”
In fact, the artist had always wanted to design a postage stamp. In September 2001, postal art director Ethel Kessler commissioned him to design the following year’s “Love” stamp. “It seemed as if the assignment just floated down from heaven and landed on my desk,” he says. Since then, he’s designed nearly a dozen stamps for Kessler.
But it wasn’t until after he put together his first postal museum exhibit – the well-received Trailblazers and Trendsetters: Art of the Stamp, which ran from November 2006 to August 2008 – that he and Kuhn finally received the green light for their A-Z exhibit: Alphabetilately.
Over the next seven months, he would juggle a successful design business and an ambitious cross-media exhibition separated by nearly 3,000 miles.
C is for Collateral
Putting together a philatelic exhibit requires a bit more than simply throwing some postage under glass and letting people into the museum to admire it. Osborne learned that from the Trailblazers and Trendsetters exhibit, which had featured just 75 pieces of original art; Alphabetilately would boast more than 2,000 individual artifacts, with a substantial amount of text thrown in for good measure.
Before he was done he would design virtually everything in the exhibit space, right down to the floor and wall display cases and the benches on which the visitors sat. Some of the more notable items included:
The Official Exhibit Stamp and Cancellation. The horizontal Alphabetilately A to Z stamp and exhibit cancellation would be used in various ways throughout the exhibit and collateral materials, becoming the official logo of the event.
Invitation. The above stamp was printed in an oversize format as a 5-color engraving, and “tipped on” to the letterpress-printed invitation. “Collectors just went crazy over this stuff,” says Osborne.
Keepsake. Similar to the invitation, this letterpress-printed piece featured the same oversize engraved exhibit stamp, and an A-Z guide to what each letter of the exhibit stands for (e.g., “H” is for “Handstamp”).
As impressive as these pieces are, the lion’s share of Osborne’s attention was taken up with producing the contents of the display cases themselves – the very heart of the exhibit.
E is for Exhibit
You don’t create and maintain a high-profile design company without knowing the strengths each designer brings to the table, and how best to deploy them. Osborne chose his former student and staff designer Cody Dingle to work with him on the exhibit “because he has this very technical mind and way of working. All the sudden he would do something on the computer and everything would just snap into place.”
Which was fortunate because, with more than 2,000 items, a heck of a lot needed to snap into place.
For three months they scanned ephemera “so that they carried all the watermarks and stains and cancelations” of the originals, before mounting them on the larger themed panels. The standing cases grouped items into loose categories such as “people on stamps, typography, etc.,” complete with captions; the wall cases contained the primary A-Z content along with Kuhn’s text. Those files were then sent to the postal museum’s exhibit team in DC, who assembled the cases per Osborne’s art direction.
It was also at this stage that the museum team added one rare item per subject from their archives to each case. Over the next four months, Osborne made several trips between San Francisco and DC to oversee construction and ensure the accuracy and quality of the elements.
As the very first iPhone had only been introduced the previous year, most of his communications back and forth consisted of long conference calls.
“The challenge was that there were so many opportunities for disaster,” says Osborne, suddenly realizing a 45-minute discussion of this exhibit has barely scratched the surface. “I could talk for a week about this and not cover all the details– it’s one of my most favorite projects in my career.”