Why you should care
Because seemingly small icons can drive big cultural moments.
Raindrops fell as 10,070 young athletes shivered on the sidelines at Wankdorf Stadium in Bern, Switzerland. Red, orange, yellow, blue and white packages had been meticulously placed throughout the field. Pink Floyd’s The Wall was pumping from the loudspeakers. A helicopter circled overhead.
Roland Grunder of the Swiss Post stepped up to the mic and instructed the gymnasts to proceed to their positions on the field, where they donned the T-shirts and hats inside the packages before them. The athletes had traveled from across the country to compete in the 72nd Federal Gymnastics Festival, but there was something else in store for them on this uncharacteristically cool afternoon on June 22, 1996.
Grunder’s vision was clear: Create a giant human tableau in the form of a postage stamp, the world’s largest ever. After just 90 minutes and with no rehearsal, a Guinness World Records representative confirmed that the 28,000-square-foot spectacle had succeeded. An aerial photograph documented the moment, and the stamp created from the pointillist-like design sold out in a matter of days.
A canton in Switzerland was among the first places to introduce postage stamps, in 1843 — three years after Great Britain — and the nation would continue to be a major player in the global art and design world. International Typographic Style, the blocky, minimalist design that pairs sans-serif typefaces with clean, crisp imagery, developed in Switzerland in the 1950s, is considered the foundation for modern graphic design. Helvetica, arguably the world’s most ubiquitous font, also emerged from postwar Switzerland. From subway stations and corporate logos to restaurant menus and U.S. currency, the font has a look that is at once neutral and approachable, modern and fresh — much like its nation of origin.
The first Swiss “A” stamp entered circulation in 1993. Its clear-cut lines and hints of nostalgia provided credibility to the Swiss Post, simplified the mail-sorting process and freed customers from having to mark priority mail with an “A” themselves. But it didn’t feel contemporary, despite Switzerland’s reputation for innovation.
So the postal service enlisted Basel-based graphic designer Jean-Benoit Levy to update the design. He chose colors that lent a cheerful note to the otherwise mundane task of sending mail and used a style that updated the look considerably. “I was inspired by the three strokes it takes to create the letter A,” says Levy.
“This abstraction suggests the positive principle of the communication made possible by the Post,” opined a 2001 edition of Focus on Stamps: The Collector’s Magazine provided by archivists at the Swiss Post. The stamp was a hit and, to Levy’s surprise, it remained in use for eight years, from 1995 to 2003 — far longer than the two-year average of previous priority stamps. Apart from Grunder’s human re-creation of it in 1996, the design was adapted for use in advertisements for everything from convenience stores to politicians. It even appeared on cycling team uniforms and found its way into other artists’ work.
A member of the exclusive Alliance Graphique Internationale organization since 1998, Levy continues to extend the influence of Swiss design. Most recently, he attended AGI conferences in Mexico and Holland, and created a traveling exhibition in partnership with the Swiss cultural council Pro Helvetia that debuted in Seoul, South Korea, and has also made its way to Quito, Ecuador. The show is a tribute to the Swiss art of merging words and images in a way that conveys information quickly and efficiently.
Levy and his family now live in the Bay Area, but he makes a point of visiting his homeland regularly. “We fly every year to the French part of Switzerland near Montreux,” he says. “We enjoy swimming in or paddling on the Lake of Geneva in the long summer days, and I always spend a few days discovering new art exhibitions and restaurants in Basel.”
For a city that generated much of its wealth from the chemical industry, Basel is also among the world’s most renowned art and culture hubs. The city’s dedication to promoting culture is evident in the number of museums and galleries, public art installations and local events, and contributes to a unique and stimulating environment for its inhabitants. “It’s not a coincidence that a fair like Art Basel comes out of a city like Basel,” Levy says.
And to think that Swiss design, famous the world over for its crisp, almost architectural simplicity, got its biggest boost from a small stamp.