Stamp of Approval
The U.S. Postal Service’s record of celebrating designers is spotty at best. Fewer than 20 architects have been honored with a commemorative stamp in the 161 years that the agency has been issuing them. Though doll designers have fared surprisingly well—five were celebrated in 1997 alone—few of their peers have been so embraced: costume designer Edith Head was recognized in 2003, landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted in 1999, and glass artist Louis Comfort Tiffany last year. But with its latest offering, there’s reason to suspect the Postal Service has found a new kind of commitment. Next month, it is releasing an ambitious set of Charles and Ray Eames stamps.
A 14-member advisory committee (the present lineup includes graphic designer Jessica Helfand, public intellectual Henry Louis Gates Jr., and Oscar-winning actor Karl Malden, an emeritus member who can boast a Los Angeles post office named after him) approved the project, and Stamp Services assigned Washington, D.C.–based graphic designer Derry Noyes the commission back in 2005. Noyes wanted to show the breadth of the couple’s work as well as do something unconventional. “How can we treat the Eameses a little bit differently than we do for other stamps, thinking outside the box in their spirit?” she asked herself.
The standard book comprises a single image. Working with the Eames Foundation, Noyes instead settled on 16 representative samples of Charles and Ray’s achievements—“Yeah, it’s a lot”—including the iconic La Chaise, the Eames House, the Crosspatch textiles, the House of Cards, and even the film Tops. Their nonpostable red logo sits right in the middle of the sheet rather than being consigned to the selvage—something that had never been done before. “You’re losing four 42-cent stamps,” Noyes says. “But when the committee saw the visual impact of having so many different things going on—from the different disciplines to the use of photography, line drawing, and graphics—it made sense to them. And when they realized how much these two designers had to offer, they signed on.”
Unlike the black-and-white stamp sets from a few years back of other midcentury Modern design icons, such as Eero Saarinen and Isamu Noguchi, the Eames book is in full color. “Far more attention was put into the design of these stamps as opposed to just plunking an engraving down,” says Noyes, who actually imagines a downside: “The old-timer stamp collectors are probably not too happy about it.”
Having designed stamps since the early 1980s, Noyes also has a personal connection to the Eameses. Two of her siblings worked in the Eames office, and her parents, Eliot and Molly (see “Family Comes First,” August 2006), were good friends with the designers. “They would visit a lot, and after dinner my parents would get the projector out and show their films over and over again,” she recalls.
But Noyes stresses that it is the couple’s universal appeal that matters. “Unlike some people who are long gone and you have to be reminded of what they were all about, the Eameses are still ever present in daily life,” she says. “These things are still being reproduced and used and bought by people of all ages. They are as much a part of our lives today as they were a generation before.”