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.
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.
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.
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.
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.