My father had two pastimes: one was playing the lottery, the other was collecting stamps. I once thought stamps were an odd hobby for a man who never wrote letters. My father left to my mother the task of letter-writing, such as it was in my family, which was in fact never anything more than the most formulaic of correspondence—small notes of thanks, condolences or congratulations, as predictable in their language and content as the New Year’s Day menu.
My father didn’t receive many letters, either. Except for bills. As a kid I thought he seemed to get a lot of bills, though now I realize they were often the same bills, recast as dunning letters.
But for a man who didn’t get much mail and who certainly didn’t have much money to spend to buy stamps (and even if he had, wouldn’t have indulged himself), my father had a lot of stamps. He got them from cousins and uncles and friends and neighbors. Everyone knew that Frank was a collector, and when they got a letter with something other than a run-of-the-mill stamp, the envelope would wind up in my father’s hands.
My father had somehow made it known that it was better if they didn’t try to pry off the stamp from the envelope. Some cut around the stamp and gave him the piece of the envelope but most just gave him the entire envelope, complete with postmark and return address. He could have chronicled the comings and goings of the clan with all the envelopes he received. So my father wound up collecting not only stamps but family stories, too. Whoever handed over a stamp to my father also had a story to tell about the provenance of the letter and the person who wrote it. A widowed granduncle’s travels to the Holy Lands, a young soldier’s wanderings through Germany, a divorcee’s second start in Florida.
I must have been ten when he bought me a starter set. He showed me how to use the hinges to affix the stamps to the album. For a while he would even take me down to the Post Office and we’d buy strips of commemorative stamps. But it never was really much fun for me. How could my father really enjoy this, I thought? Some of the stamps were more colorful and prettier than others, but to me they were just sheets of duplicated images with glue on the back.
My father was never able to communicate his enthusiasm for his collection. Was it because he was never particularly good at expressing himself about anything? Or was it that he didn’t know why he liked stamp-collecting? I think now that maybe it wasn’t the stamps themselves, their taxonomy or value or particularities that gave him pleasure. It wasn’t the sense of accomplishment of filling in the collection or the pleasure of acquisition. There was no focus or direction or organizing principle to his collection. In fact, if anything, it was the opposite: others collected for him.
I think what most delighted him about this very peculiar kind of collecting were the stories that cousins and in-laws would tell him. Maybe it was that small moment when one of them would say, “I’ve got something for you, Frank” and my father would be the center of attention that he would otherwise never be. It wasn’t what was in the stamp but behind it.
I like to think of him sitting at the dining room table that he used as an ersatz desk, late at night after the kids had gone to bed, the house finally quiet, save for the dishwasher humming its lullaby of domestic order as he leafs through his albums, recalling the occasion on which one or another stamp fell into his hands—a summer backyard barbeque, a niece’s First Communion, a get-together with his cousins to go crabbing, all happy times, of course, since no one gave Frank stamps at a wake or the hospital.
I remained indifferent to stamps, even forgetting their existence as I starting sending letters email, until I chanced upon a showcase of stamps at an exhibition of Dutch graphic design at the Museum of Cycladic Art
I suppose the lineup of stamps by different designers, their encasement in a glass display case at a museum, their re-contextualization so to speak, forced me to look at them in an entirely different and new way. It made me look at elements of design in the stamps, the composition and typography. Some were achingly beautiful in their tiny scale, miniaturist works of art in their own right. The exhibition spurred me to search for stamps by other designers and I chanced upon Kat Ran Press’s marvelous presentation of postage stamps by type designers. And there I discovered Henning Wagenbreth’s Karl Valentin stamp, which he was commissioned to design on the occasion of the cabarettist’s 125th birthday.
Wagenbreth is a German graphic designer and comic artist, one of those artists whose work is decidedly more recognizable than his name. There’s a very familiar feel to the art brut underground aesthetic of his graphic novels, linocuts, posters and book illustrations, though we may actually be recalling the work of Rory Hayes in his animated series on MTV’s Liquid Television, which bears marked similarities. I knew that Wagenbreth had also developed an automated illustration system that uses a grammar of programming rules to churn out permutations of figures and other story elements such as rockets, buildings, machine parts and animals. But I didn’t know he had designed stamps.
This one depicts a tubular-looking very thin man dressed in a black suit and sporting a bowler hat, who’s about to saw off the legs to the chair he’s kneeling on. The design is playful and provocative. It’s a visual quote from a slapstick film of Valentin’s called The New Desk in which the Munich performance artist, who has been called the Charlie Chaplin of the Munich Dadaists, plays a businessman whose new desk doesn’t really suit him, a problem he tries to solve by shortening the legs of his chair. Wagenbreth set his character against a teal background, a reference perhaps to Valentin’s claim of having invented a new field of stamp collecting—the Green Stamps—a claim much in keeping with his subversive wit: the comic was color-blind.
It makes for a wonderful story, this stamp. The other stories, the ones my father heard when his family handed over to him the envelopes for his collection, those I’ll never learn about. I sometimes think, had he been able to tell me the stories of his stamps, perhaps I could have shared with him a bit of his enthusiasm. And perhaps that could have been a way for us to connect without the embarrassment each of us felt in the presence of the other. But then again, maybe not. Valentin once said, “The future was better in the old days, too”. Maybe because in retrospect the past contains a wealth of possibilities that are now forever gone.
Image: Henning Wagenbreth’s design for the Karl Valentin stamp