Antonio Alcalá & Michael Dyer score a coup for abstract design

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[Alyson Kuhn] Earlier this week, I received a large mailer bearing two perfectly abstract stamps. Above, you see a detail of one of them. If I hadn’t already known about these stamps, I would have thought, “Those Europeans! Why can’t we have designs like these?” Well, thanks to Antonio Alcalá, who art directed, and Michael Dyer, who designed the undulating patterns—We the People have not just two abstract stamps, but four. Fun for us!

Left: The Waves of Color stamps. Right: Euro banknotes of increasing denomination and size.

It had occurred to me that perhaps the designs were mega-magnifications of the guilloche patterns engraved on U.S. and other currencies. I called up Antonio Alcalá at Studio A before I’d even opened the mailer, and asked him. He replied, “No, they are completely abstract. That’s a significant achievement in my book—as far as I know, it’s never been done before on a U.S. postage stamp. I think that abstract design has everything to do with what we consider ‘traditional American values.’ There’s an immense amount of freedom for each viewer when they look at an abstract design.”

Detail from the $1 Waves of Color stamp

Alcalá elaborated: “You might see architecture, or flowing fabric, or psychedelic mind-altering patterns. Or you might just say, ‘It looks happy.’ The design isn’t trying to impose a particular point of view. It’s not referring to anything—not the flag, the Statue of Liberty or the Liberty Bell. Abstraction in any artform, whether it’s abstract art or abstract literature, can be challenging or even uncomfortable for many people—because there is nothing providing ‘the answer.’ People become a little groundless, they have to rely on their own senses or intuition, thoughts or ideas to give it a meaning, a purpose, a reason for being.”

The higher the denomination, the bigger the stamp: The $1 stamp is 1.22 x .94 in., a special size. The $2 is 1.6 x 1 in. (commemorative horizontal).

Then I called up Steve Liska of Liska + Associates, the sender of the mailer (above), to compliment him on his choice of stamps. He said, “We don’t need stamps very often, but when we do, I just ask myself, ‘What would Alyson do?’” When I had stopped cackling, Liska asked, “And what did you think of the brochure?” I admitted that I hadn’t seen it yet, but that its decanting was imminent. I asked how many-ish mailers they had sent, and he said, “Oh, about 1100.” I would have loved to see that assembly party.

Helen McNiell’s color study for the $5 stamp

Designer Helen McNiell is Studio A’s color guru (and Alcalá’s wife). Going into the project, Alcalá and Dyer knew they’d be allowed “a certain number of colors to print the job. We also knew we wanted to allude to the richness of traditional currency. We decided to make sure the four stamps felt very different from each other in terms of their color palette.”

Helen McNiell’s color study for the $1 stamp

Each design is offset printed in six PMS colors. The denomination, which appears twice (once as a large numeral and once as small type), is printed subsequently using the intaglio process, one color at a time, the same way currency is printed.

I asked Alcalá if he and Dyer had experimented with other patterns. Of course they had. Umpteen directions in the first wave, so to speak, which they narrowed down to a handful for the initial presentation to the Citizens Stamp Advisory Committee. Alcalá offered to share some of those explorations.

Preliminary directions: The original assignment was only for a $2 stamp, to replace the $2 Mountain Lion that was scheduled for retirement.

Somewhat to the surprise of Alcalá and Dyer, the committee’s response to the notion of an abstract design was not only positive, but enthusiastic enough to propose expanding the $2 design into a family of four high-value denominations. This is another philatelic first for the USPS. My 2¢ worth: This series is great for postal patrons sending heavy invitations or cards, large envelopes, and small packages.

The $10 design includes one metallic ink (PMS 877 silver).

One could actually send a very stylish Express Mail package within the U.S. ($19.95) using all four denominations: one $10, one $5, two $2s and a $1 (or one $2 and three $1s). Several kuhnfigurations come to mind, and I plan to entrust one to the mail stream as soon as I replenish my supply of $1s.

Detail from the $10 stamp

Alcalá likes to send mail. His favorite enclosure is a notecard on which he’s had a panel blind debossed, where he can tip on a stamp. It makes for a very nice collectible. Several weeks ago, I was fortunate to receive the $10 stamp as a postal party favor!

The $10 stamp, measuring 1.99 x 1.44 in., is classified as a jumbo. (Appropriately, the $5 stamp,measuring 1.6 x 1.25 in., is a semi-jumbo.)

Left: The back of the notecard. Right: Alcalá mailed his note with the Emancipation Proclamation stamp designed by Gail Anderson (art director: Antonio Alcalá).

Photos: 1, 12, 13 © 2013 StudioAlex; 2 © 2012 USPS, used with permission; all others courtesy of Studio A.

To order the Waves of Color stamps online, here are handy links for each denomination: $1, $2, $5 and $10. Yes, you can buy just one.

We featured Studio A’s collection of letter As here.

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Comments (1)

  1. Posted by Bill Senkus on 03.29.13 at 11:14 pm

    Kudos, Aly, and thanks! This is just the sort of stamp design and production info I love. I really dig all those details like evolution of the concept and alternate designs.

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