Founded in 1992 by Michael Johnson, London-based studio Johnson Banks is giving stodgy
philatelists a much-needed jolt. When the Royal Mail wanted to
develop postage stamps that would appeal to children, Johnson took
inspiration from beloved British toy Fuzzy-Felt and the ubiquitous
Mr. Potato Head, and coined the first “interactive” stamps.
Although Johnson conceived the idea in the mid-90s, it wasn't until
2003 that the first
“Fun Fruit and Veg” series of stamps finally debuted (they were
re-released last year). His most recent timbre de force
Beatles with the kind of panache that stamps rarely achieve,
with a playful irreverence that's true to the Fab Four. In this
interview Michael Johnson talks about the process of miniaturizing
famed Beatles covers, breaking with philatelic convention, and the
trials and tribulations therein.
The Beatles stamps by Johnson Banks, 2007.
Heller: The Beatles. Short of designing Sgt.
Pepper, I can't think of a better job than to design postage
stamps that commemorate the Beatles' comparatively short, but
remarkable lifespan. Was it as exciting as I think it
Johnson: Actually it was a labor of love, and
for quite some time I was weighed down by the enormity of it. All
our first ideas were ponderous and overworked. We started it in mid
2005—that's a long time to wait for an inch square piece of sticky
paper. But now, all of that is forgotten and they are, I'm told,
one of the most successful UK stamp designs ever. Blimey.
Heller: I'm sure they are. In the United States,
however, one prohibition is that subjects must be dead—for at least
10 years—to be on commemorative stamps. Is there any such concern
Johnson: There is a version of that rule
here—only dead people or royalty (of course). However they've been
relaxing this rule slightly over the last few years, and, let's
face it, half the Beatles are no longer with us. I've fell foul of
the “dead rule” a couple of times, most notably when I presented
photos of a children's nativity play for a Christmas set—they
looked fantastic—and [Royal Mail's] first question was, “Are the
children still alive?” True story.
Heller: Since a stamp is tiny, there were only so many
ways to go—use the Beatles' individual portraits, group portraits,
time-lapse portraits, etc. How was the album cover motif
The Beatles miniature sheet.
Johnson: Originally we were briefed to explore
“memorabilia,” which we duly did on another set that has also been
published. But when I started thinking more about the albums, it
became more and more obvious that they were so iconic, they could
almost do all the work for me.
Heller: How did you decide to compose the covers in such
a dynamic, though ad hoc fashion, making it appear that they are
just piled willy-nilly on top of one another? I think it's a small,
but huge innovation. But was it a tough sell?
Johnson: Well, the plan was to comp them onto
'60s carpets. Then I watched one of my interns carefully cut out
the test shots and it kind of hit me that the albums were the
solution—forget the shag-pile.
Heller: Shag carpets—are you serious? Thank heavens you
came to your senses.
Johnson: Yes, you're absolutely right.
Sometimes the simplest solutions are literally just staring you in
the face. The issue of designing stamps is really that you gaze at
designs on your screen, all the time forgetting quite how small
they end up. When designing stamps you spend most of your time
taking things out, not putting them in.
Heller: And then there's the issue of the asymmetric
perforations. How did you get the powers that be to
Johnson: Well, that was tricky. Having had the
lightning bolt, as it were, I rang my client and asked how they
would feel about a wiggly set of variable edges on a stamp, and
there was a long and rather pregnant pause. They got back to me
days later and said it “might” be possible. Luckily enough the
stamp committee loved them and was prepared to fight for them
through the inevitably tricky stages when we were trying to print
millions of tiny stickers with massively complex die-cut edges.
Very nasty. I ended up actually designing the perforations
Heller: Designing perforations, say more?
Johnson: Well, I mean designing exactly where
the “edge” of the stamps goes, how the little semicircle “bites”
work, and what happens when you turn a corner. Normally it's not an
issue—it's literally done by the printer who distributes 0.9 mm
holes along the edges (well, you did ask). Trouble is the first
attempt by the printer looked like the mice had chewed all the
edges so I had to go clambering up a “perforation design” learning
I thought they might try and make me standardize the “pile” [of
covers], as it were, but I managed to dig in a bit and make sure
that each stack is quite different, which adds a lot to it.
“Fun Fruit and Veg” stamps.
The “Fruit and Veg” stamps we did in 2003 were useful, though,
because for those we die-cut 70-odd stickers, so some technical
precedents were set.
Heller: Would you say the Royal Mail is an “enlightened
Johnson: Er, yes, generally. I guess after the
“Fruit and Veg” stamps, and now these, we are building up some good
ones. They've also done scratch-and-sniff, holographic—you name it,
really. I only say “er” because I'd like every month to be as
interesting as these, and they're not. The hard-core philatelists
are quite a conservative bunch, to be honest.
Heller: Did the surviving Beatles have any say in the
design of the stamp or the selection of the album covers? Indeed,
do they even own the covers (I know Michael Jackson owns or owned
much of the Lennon/McCartney library)?
Johnson: Apple Corps was seriously involved—not
so much with selection, given that we pretty much selected at least
four of the most obvious [albums], but more with sign-off of pack
design, copy, etc. They are notoriously litigious, so the Royal
Mail played it very carefully. [Sleeve designer and artist] Peter
Blake won't even talk about Sgt. Pepper anymore because of
the hell they put him through. Funnily enough, Sgt. Pepper
is probably one of the weakest as a stamp because it's just so
detailed. It's With the Beatles, Help! and
Abbey Road that work really well, I think. We kept trying
to slot the famous “Butcher cover” [the controversial, ultimately
rejected Yesterday...and Today cover] into the stack, but
they kept taking it out. I, of course, wanted the White
Album to be one of the main albums, but I lost that
A Google Images search result: Lennon and Marx stamp, the
Republic of Abkhazia, 1994.
Heller: Were there any controversies associated with
either the decision to commemorate the Beatles or the design of the
Johnson: I think most people might think that
the 50th anniversary of John and Paul meeting was a bit tenuous [as
a reason], but I think the Royal Mail were just desperate to
finally do some Beatles stamps, given that the rest of the world
has beaten them to it now for decades. There was even a U.S.
“Yellow Submarine” stamp a few years back. If you want a laugh, tap
in “Beatles stamps” into Google Images and you'll see some horrors
from around the world.
I was attacked quite a bit for my “Fruit and Veg” stamps, so I
was ready for the criticisms this time—but it's all good this time,
to use a bit of U.S. vernacular.
Heller: What do you mean you were attacked quite a bit
Johnson: Hard-core philatelists and collectors
objected to the fact that the public had been given license to
“deface” stamps by sticking stickers all over them. (For an example
of philatelyannoyance.com, see “Royal Mail begins decline into
trashy stamps” here.) Deep down I think
the collectors resented the fact that each stamp was now, in
theory, completely customizable. Stamp collectors are a bit thrown
by the concept of 500,000 stamps being unique.
Apparently though, I then discovered that if you had a “Fruit
and Veg” set that hadn't been die-cut (i.e., a mistake), that was
immediately worth £1,000!
Heller: I must know, did you get the ultimate perk (at
least for me)—did you meet Paul and Ringo? For that I would have
done the job for free.
Johnson: To be blunt, no! George Martin's son?
Yes. Trouble is, I don't like the recent remix album
[Love, which Giles Martin co-produced] at all so that was
a letdown. I know that McCartney and Ringo should have had
sign-off, but ultimately the Queen has final sign-off. She likes
the Beatles, apparently, so that was an easy sell. Probably fancied
them in 1962, I reckon.
Heller: I actually loved the remix album. So, what's
next? The Stones, The Kinks, Pete Best?
Johnson: Personally I'd love to do Led
Zeppelin. It's more likely to be the anniversary of the discovery
of a rare breed of mummified insects, knowing the Royal Mail.
Actually, we have a whole bunch of ideas, so we pitch them all the
time hoping that a new idea will eventually stick.
I once got so annoyed by the “dead rule” as regards the Queen
[only members of the British royal family may be depicted on stamps
during their lifetime] that I once proposed a whole set of dead
queens—you know, sculpted heads of Freddie Mercury, Gianni Versace,
Oscar Wilde, etc. Well, I thought it was funny.
The designer renowned for his bold, typographic book jackets
for In Cold Blood and The Godfather and some of
jazz's most iconic covers has passed away.
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