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An Antiquated Art of Antiquities

Pioneers of American Industrial Design honored on... postage stamps?

By / Posted on 10 January 2011

Gilbert Rohde's Electric Clock stampThe United States Postal Service (yes, that’s still a thing. It’s how you get most of your bills, remember?) revealed their commemorative stamps for the 2011 calendar year. While these are mostly aimed at collectors, they are all still completely acceptable postage stamps (unlike the collectors coins advertised during cable game show reruns), and they often demonstrate a surprisingly deft understanding of American pop culture and history. 2011′s offerings include obligatory portraits of beloved American heroes Mark Twain, Gregory Peck and Barbara Jordan, celebrations of Latin music and the Indianapolis 500, and somewhat adorable duos of Disney/Pixar characters as friends.

Perhaps most interesting of the bunch, however, is the 12-piece set debuting in July: Pioneers of American Industrial Design.

Pioneers of American Industrial Design full stamp set

Walter Dorwin Teague's Camera stampYou see, during the Great Depression, a number of acclaimed designers turned their eyes toward everyday household items with the intent on improving daily life through better design. It was a noble pursuit, blending art and life so that neither imitated so much as complimented¬†the other, and a pursuit that has continued well into modern day (just look at any MoMA store, where designer kitchen utensils nearly outnumber art books). This wave of new industrial design made art objects affordable to middle-class Americans during the hardest fiscal strains in our nation’s history and kickstarted the American love affair with industrial design. Look back on recent history and the public’s obsession with Motorola’z RAZR mobile phone, Apple’s iPod portable music player, and every Dyson product ever. Yes, these objects are useful in our daily lives, but more than that they are consumer art – easily accessible status symbols.

Raymond Loewy's Streamlined Pencil Sharpener stampOne element of the Pioneers of American Industrial Design stamps series that is both fascinating and depressing is how almost every product displayed, while gorgeous, is completely outdated and impractical today. Who in the 21st century still uses a typewriter, analog camera, desk telephone, crank pencil sharpener, radio, or pitcher without some sort of filtration device attached? It’s only fitting, I suppose, considering how antiquated the very postage stamp seems in a world where everyone has multiple email accounts streaming to their smartphones 24/7. Worthy of note, however, is that these stamps, as well as all of the 2011 commemorative stamps, are of the “Forever” denomination, meaning they will always cover full first-class postage, regardless of the changing price of postage, so no need to keep track of what it costs to send a letter this week as long as you have a set of Dave Chapman Sewing Machine stamps at the ready.

It’s great to see this highly influential period in American design recognized with its own collection of stamps. Were it not for these works, we would not have Michael Graves toasters and teapots at every Target store in the country. While most of us don’t realize it, we as Americans are obsessed with industrial design. We notice it everywhere, we think about it all the time, we crave well-designed consumer products, and it all started with these designers nearly a century ago.

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Derrick Sanskrit has produced critically-acclaimed work as an artist and writer for Nerve, Babble, Pitchfork, The Onion and the Museum of Comic and Cartoon Art, among others. He founded The Pop Aesthetic during the coldest months of his life in 2010.