American stamps were once the shame of American pen pals and
collectors, who wondered plaintively why ours were not as beautiful
as those of other countries. As I recall, their improvement
ironically began just as the functional demand for them began to
dwindle. The dwindling is nearly done now. Once an essential
artifact of both social and business communication, stamps are now
primarily of philatelic and aesthetic interest. In January the U.S.
Postal Service announced a forthcoming set of 12 stamps celebrating
of American Industrial Design.” The stamps were designed by
Margaret Bauer and art directed by Derry Noyes, with Niels
Diffrient as a consultant. But you'd never know any of that from
reading most of the news releases.
In July 2011 the U.S. Postal Service will issue a 12-stamp
series commemorating “Pioneers of American Industrial Design,”
designed by Margaret Bauer and art directed by Derry Noyes.
Stamp designers have not been wholly devoid of recognition. When
Calle died last September his New York Times obituary
described him as “one of the most highly regarded stamp designers
in the nation,” a category I doubt many readers knew existed. USA
Philatelic's Beyond the Perf web journal reports regularly
on the “people behind the process,” such as recently retired
Terry McCaffrey, a 40-year veteran stamp designer with the
USPS, and art directors
Ethel Kessler, Derry Noyes and Phil Jordan, filmed discussing
their favorite designs of the past year.
But in general stamp designers, like most designers, have had to
live with the common failure to realize that anything is designed
at all. As Julie Lasky has written, people need to be taught “not
to presume that objects and graphics fell from the sky ... but that
smart, highly trained people are behind them.”
Apart from the recognition that artifacts are designed by
someone, the question of design credits is as old as the
practice of design, and has been debated as long; but it has never
been laid to rest. It won't be laid to rest now, either, but with
the publication of two new books, neither of which I have read,
this seems like an appropriate time to try to consider it
The Story of Eames Furniture, reputedly purports to reveal
that Charles and Ray Eames did not really design the furniture that
famously bears their name. The other is Clara and Mr. Tiffany, a fictional biography of Clara
Driscoll, the apparently nonfictional designer of most of the
The pioneers honored in the new stamp issue, all deceased, are
Frederick Hurten Rhead, best known for Fiestaware; Walter Dorwin
Teague, who designed cameras at a time when they required film;
Norman Bel Geddes, whose “Futurama”
dominated the 1939 world's fair; Raymond Loewy; Donald Deskey ;
Gilbert Rohde; Greta von Nessen, designer of the Anywhere lamp,
which at one time was practically everywhere. Russel Wright; Henry
Dreyfuss; Peter Müller-Munk, Dave Chapman; and Eliot Noyes, who was
the father of Derry Noyes, who, in addition to her other
achievements as a graphic designer has been an art director for the
postal service, since the mid-1980s.
Most of the honorees headed their own design offices at one
time, and several have been accused of taking credit for products
that they had not personally designed. In many cases the charges
were accurate enough, considering the way things were at the time.
Many celebrated designers were widely identified as the designers
of specific products, although the character of the products and
the size of the office that issued them indicated that they could
hardly have been the only designers responsible. During the
hegemony of the designers honored in the new stamp issue, there
were frequent tiffs, argument, and even lawsuits over the question
of who designed what. This was largely accounted for by the
prevailing business culture and the circumstances under which the
design professions emerged. The first designers were essentially
craftsmen offering a service, often misunderstood, for which there
was no anterior need. Once a need was established, design offices
had to become organizationally equipped to meet it. Attributing a
design to everyone who had worked on it would have been a messy
business. At least that was the rationale. Or the rationalization.
So designs were routinely credited to the person whose name headed
the office. Egos were involved of course. Office heads defended the
system on the grounds that they were the ones charged with
initiating and developing ideas and who took responsibility for
whatever was done. As products became increasingly complex it
became correspondingly clear that one person could hardly have done
all the thinking or all the work. And the expanding size of design
offices suggested the involvement of many hands and many heads. If
the completion of a design project did not necessarily take a
village, clearly it took a bullpen.
Soon firm names were changed accordingly. Rumplestiltskin
Featherbone became Rumplestiltskin Featherbone and
Associates. This struck a blow for accuracy, but did not do
much for justice. (The ever-inventive Bran Ferren once, in
a move towards egalitarianism, named his firm “Associates and
Ferren.”) The resentfully perceived injustice was compounded by the
fact that clients typically wanted to meet with the prestigious
name designer, rather than someone in the backroom, no matter what
he or she was called.
“Life,” as John Kennedy said, “is unfair.” One difficulty was,
and is, that designers who went elsewhere after spending years
working in a particular design office, were left without any clear
evidence of authorship of their work.
During a period when some designers who had worked for him were
complaining that they got no recognition for work they had done in
the George Nelson office, George complained to me, “I understand
that some people are saying that some of our products came from
their ideas. Well, if they didn't think they were hired to have
good ideas, why did they think they were hired?”
The postal service has honored design in the past, having put
Frank Lloyd Wright's face on
a 2-cent stamp in 1966. By 2008, when the
Charles and Ray Eames stamps (also designed by Derry Noyes)
were issued, the price had gone up to 42 cents. Meanwhile the
concept of postal service had been disparagingly relegated to“
snail mail,” used largely for delivering bills, fund-raising
pitches, wedding invitations and jury-duty summonses. The character
of design-office credit has undergone equally radical change. I
still encounter people determined to destroy “the myth of the
solitary designer.” That may be a worthy mission but it seems late
in the game to take it on. Never much of a myth to begin with, it
has by now been thoroughly exploded and its substance made
obsolete. Today there are few major design projects that are not
transparently collaborative, making attribution more complicated
Ralph Caplan is the author of Cracking the Whip: Essays on Design
and Its Side Effects and By Design. Caplan is the former editor of
I.D. magazine, and has been a columnist for both I.D. and Print. He lectures widely, teaches in the graduate Design Criticism program at the School of Visual Arts, was awarded the 2010 “Design Mind” National Design Award by the Cooper-Hewitt
and is the recipient of the
2011 AIGA Medal.
Distraction is easy, attention is hard. Caplan points out why designers must pay attention in order to get (and hold) attention.
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