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German Stamps by Henning Wagenbreth

Designs from the Berlin illustrator tell colorful stories on a few square centimeters.

Contributed by Florian Hardwig on Jan 20th, 2012. Artwork published in 2011.

Each year, the Federal Ministry of Finance of Germany issues approximately 50 stamps. One of the graphic artists who was commissioned for their design is Henning Wagenbreth, a Berlin-based illustrator and professor at the University of Arts in Berlin. With their unique comical style and bright colors, his stamps alone give reason enough to prefer good old snail mail over e-mail and file sharing.

Till Eulenspiegel (“Owlglass”), a trickster figure from medieval German folklore, is surrounded by various objects from his pranks. The first-day-of-issue postmarks show his upset victims running after him. The typeface is the seriffed version of Wagenbreth’s own FF Prater family. Note the “German” seven with crossbar, a letterform Americans might be more familiar with in handwriting than in type. (35×35mm, July 7, 2011, Michel 2880).

This stamp celebrates the 100th anniversary of youth hostels. By placing the hostel on the perforation, Wagenbreth cleverly utilizes the horizontal repetition on the sheet and boils down the story of backpacker travel to its essence: hiking from lodge to lodge. FF Typestar was designed by Steffen Sauerteig, a member of the eBoy collective, who collaborated with Wagenbreth on the Prater fonts. (46×27mm, August 13, 2009, Michel 2753)

To date, Henning Wagenbreth has designed twelve stamps, of which nine have been issued. Although he creates custom lettering for posters and other projects, Wagenbreth avoids drawn or written letters for his stamp designs. The characters for this tiny medium, he claims, need to be stricter, more regular and precise. That is why he relies on typefaces. He is convinced that stamps need to have a longer aesthetic half-life, and hence shouldn’t look like they were done by hand, as a quick sketch. In all his designs, he worked with a restricted typographic palette. The typefaces in use are his own FF Prater, Akzidenz-Grotesk, and FF Typestar, or a mix thereof.

I like using the Prater family, because it goes well with my drawings. Well, that is what it was made for! Its forms are relatively strict. Still, it is somewhat dynamic, with its modulated stroke weight and its deviations from the vertical and horizontal. What I like about Akzidenz-Grotesk is that it is a timeless design, with neutral forms. Furthermore, it is available in all kinds of styles. This enables me to pick a size, width, and weight that goes well with the rest of the design. Typestar comes into play when neither Prater nor Akzidenz-Grotesk were considered appropriate. Or maybe also when I wanted to achieve a slightly more modern look, without being too trendy.

Commemorating 100 years of engine powered flight, this stamp features German aviation pioneer Hans Grade in his self-constructed triplane. (44×26mm, October 9, 2008, Michel 2698)

A souvenir sheet dedicated to historic motorsports is illustrated with vintage cars racing on the Nürburgring, a motorsport complex in the Eifel mountains. (105×70mm / 55×32mm, August 13, 2009, Michel 2754)

For the 2011 edition of the yearly sports series, Wagenbreth designed four stamps with a colorful stripe pattern. The two promoting the Women’s World Cup of soccer were also issued in a special booklet with an adjoining layout – the so-called se-tenant stamps. (55×32mm, April 7, 2011, Michel 2857–8)

In principle, everyone who is interested in designing stamps can apply to Germany’s Federal Ministry of Finance. For every issue, about six designers are invited to submit a proposal. The proposal has to show the design both at actual and at sixfold size. The Kunstbeirat will then judge the graphic quality and pick a winner. This art board consists of 14 members, including five graphic design experts (usually professors from art schools) and one expert in printing technology.

Occasionally, art school classes are asked to submit entries, too. In 2007, Michael Kunter — then one of Wagenbreth’s students in his illustration class — won the competition for the Valentin stamp. It was only then that his professor himself was invited, too.

This stamp celebrates the 125th birthday of the Bavarian clown and comedian Karl Valentin (sometimes dubbed the Charlie Chaplin of Germany). In this scene from “Der neue Schreibtisch”, a newly acquired desk does not match the chair in height, so Valentin shortens its legs. Of course, he overdoes it, and subsequently has to shorten the chair legs, too. He goes on measuring and sawing, until he ends up sitting on the floor. (35×35mm, June 14, 2007, Michel 2610)

Generally, Germany’s special stamps are produced in sheets of 10 stamps each. The sheet edges can be designed, too. Michael Kunter chose to decorate the frame with objects from the sketch, and the music instruments typical of Valentin.

Three submissions by Wagenbreth were not selected by the art board: the 100th anniversary of international soccer matches (April 2008), the 100th birthday of comedian Heinz Erhardt (February 2009), and the 125th birthday of Franz Kafka (July 2008).

Once the art board picks an entry, the winner needs to add two first-day-of-issue postmarks – one for Berlin, one for the former capital of West-Germany, Bonn. Many of these line illustrations are half-hearted attempts that don’t live up to the quality of the main design. Not so with Wagenbreth — his postmarks continue to tell the story.

For a stamp about a board game, Wagenbreth chose to electronically slant his Prater Script to intensify the scene: an outburst of fury at the family table. This is a good lesson for those of us who hold too tightly to Type 101 rules — once you know what you’re doing, you can let go.

Celebrating 100 years of “Mensch ärgere dich nicht” (“Don’t be offended, man”), a German board game similar to the American “Sorry!” or the British “Frustration!” (44×26mm, February 11, 2010, Michel 2783)

Many of Wagenbreth’s expressive creations, like large-scale silkscreened posters, are available from his website. Still, his most concentrated pieces of work can be had for a few Euro cents at the local post office. When the next stamp issue by Wagenbreth is out, better get yourself a whole sheet, so that you can enhance your mail and keep a copy for yourself.


5 Comments on “German Stamps by Henning Wagenbreth”

  1. Ofazomi! says:
    Mar 6th, 2012  1:54 pm
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    These are fantastic stamps. It so nice to see art everywhere.

  2. martha says:
    Mar 16th, 2012  2:50 am
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    The so-called art of H. Wagenbreth is boring and lacks of any skills. It is still a big miracle how he became a teacher at an art school but since that sad day he was unable to move on from his "eastern European 50ties style".

  3. Thomas says:
    Mar 20th, 2012  3:26 am
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    Distinct and beautiful! A perfect balance between illustration and space and type. I'm really impressed.

  4. Gerd says:
    Mar 21st, 2012  8:13 pm
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    Thank you Florian for posting. I’m impressed by the way Wagenbreth embraces old styles without being purely ‘retro’ - the first two examples are so much fresher than most of the stamps I’ve seen in a while. I especially appreciate the distinct regional flavour of the designs, an important point which is being forgotten all too often (nothing like ‘eastern European 50ties style’ btw), and the loving attention to details. That Eulenspiegel piece might get me into collecting stamps… Fantastic work!

  5. heinrich says:
    Aug 16th, 2013  5:43 pm
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    It is astonishing how Wagenbreth manages to combine woodcut style simplicity with the adorable cuteness of his motifs. It is a pleasure to read this beautifully documented small piece of art journalism. 

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