Metamorphosis: A poster becomes a stamp

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[Tom Biederbeck] January 1 was the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, so it was anticipated the U.S. Postal Service would issue a commemorative stamp. What’s surprising—and maybe unprecedented—is that it was born a poster, became a postage stamp, then was reborn as a poster. Both are products of a creative collaboration between designer Gail Anderson and art director Antonio Alcalá, and are for sale at USPS.com. Here is the path they took.

The complete poster—and stamp

How did you get together? Who did what?
Gail Anderson: Antonio called me in 2011 and asked if I’d be interested in working on a stamp commemorating the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation. I don’t think I’ve ever returned a call so quickly. The original 100th anniversary stamp by Georg Olden is a classic, so I was a bit unnerved by the idea of adding to that legacy—or perhaps destroying it. Antonio’s mandate was “no chains,” so of course all I could think of were ideas that involved chains.

Antonio Alcalá: Gail is known for innovative typography, and she’s designed theater posters, which, while they’re on a scale the complete opposite of a postage stamp, still involve rendering ideas in a quick read. It’s a huge undertaking to distill the importance of such a transformative document into a tiny piece of paper.

I understand that the artwork for the stamp was the poster, and that’s unique.
Alcalá: Many stamps are based on a piece of artwork, like an illustration—a hard copy is photographed for the stamp. But a printed poster? I’m not aware of that being done before.

Anderson: Antonio and I wanted to have the design printed letterpress, and I jumped at his suggestion that we contact Jim Sherraden at Hatch Show Print. We’d get the authenticity of printing it as a real poster at one of the oldest working letterpress shops in the country—and it would be appropriate to era of the Proclamation itself.

Evaluating at Hatch Show Print

What was the production process like?
Anderson: Antonio and I flew down to Nashville to meet Jim during Country Music Association Fan Fest. We were warned there’d be no hotels available. There was only a small window of time that worked for the three of us, and Jim graciously put us up at his house. Antonio and I did the hand setting using Hatch’s vast library of wood type, and Jim checked in to make suggestions and keep us on schedule.

We had a day to set the type, and a day to run a small batch of test prints that Antonio would then present to the USPS. It was great to pretend to be a Hatch typesetter for two days! In the middle of all of that, both Antonio and I were keen on experiencing the full CMA Fan Fest, so we made it a point to spend some time outside, too.

Alcalá: I had made an enlargement of Gail’s original digital stamp design at the approximate size of the poster and we brought it with us. With some direction from Jim, we started to pull type from Hatch’s library to match Gail’s design.

We made some adjustments, mostly to accommodate the fonts that Hatch had available. When Jim pulled the first proof, I laid it on the ground and took a picture of it with my phone, which allowed us to evaluate the design at stamp size.

Our goal was to create a handbill-type image that is evocative of the period, but isn’t necessarily a reproduction. We didn’t try to make it exactly as it would’ve been done at that time. Later I was pleased to learn that most of the fonts we chose were created around 1863 or prior.

What about the posters that are for sale?
Alcalá: To my knowledge, the USPS has never offered a letterpress poster of a stamp before. At first, the members of Citizens Stamp Advisory Committee were unsure…until I brought in the press proof. To their credit, they realized this was a great opportunity.

Anderson: The USPS had Hatch print 5000 posters, with the first 1000 signed by me. I spent two days at the USPS in D.C. last November signing those thousand posters.

What do you think convinced the committee to go ahead?
Alcalá: Gail was able to pull just the right language from the original proclamation to communicate the message. And she chose the right method to convey the idea. Gail was completely flexible about the type choices, finding good substitutes from the Hatch collection to match her original, digitally created design.

Anderson: It was an honor to work on such an important project, and as a minority, the significance of the Emancipation Proclamation is not lost on me. I went to D.C. for the unveiling on January 1 at the National Archives, and I got goose bumps when they pulled down the drape that was covering the huge blow-up of the stamp.

Image courtesy USPS. Watch the video of the unveiling here.

The 16 x 23-in. letterpress poster, signed by Gail Anderson, is available for $49.95 at USPS.com.

Antonio Alcalá is the founder of Studio A in Alexandria, Va., specializing in the creation of quality print, digital and exhibition designs. He also offers DesignWorkshops, an education program for post-graduate professional designers. Alcalá is currently one of four art directors working with the USPS on the creation of new stamps.

Gail Anderson is a New York-based designer, writer and educator. Anderson’s work has been recognized by major design organizations and publications, including the Society of Publication Designers, the Type Directors Club, AIGA, The Art Directors Club, Graphis, Communication Arts, STEP inside design and Print, and her work is included in many permanent collections. Visit her website Gailycurl.com.

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Comments (1)

  1. Posted by notely on 01.30.13 at 12:32 pm

    What a fantastic article. I’ve seen the stamps and already bought them. Great to hear this backstory.

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