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Postage Stamps are Endlessly Fascinating

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(Things I learned from hoarding foreign stationery: Part II)

Okay, so I didn’t actually learn this from hoarding foreign stationery. I’ve been a philatelist since childhood, when I inherited my uncle’s stamp collection and spent a memorable Christmas holiday sorting, organizing and cataloguing stamps. Value was irrelevant — rather, I was interested in amassing the widest variety of visually interesting stamps from as many countries as possible.

My interest in philately was recently renewed when I realized that stamps in pristine condition are really boring, and that envelopes attached to stamps are interesting too. I love the functional, thoughtless way people put stamps on an envelope and the crude, random overlay of the ink stamp from the mail sorter slapped on top. I love the wear that stamps and envelopes take on their travels: dirt, creases, tears, stamps and stickers layered over and over as they leave the sorting facility in one country and enter the next. This process signifies not only a journey but a lifespan, as the crisp, new envelopes and bright, pristine stamps go out into the world and come back changed. I collect the ones that seem to have led the most interesting lives, full of adventure and thrills and disappointment and heartbreak, and I can’t bear to cast them away once they’ve finally fulfilled their ultimate purpose. The way that their mysterious history is “written” upon them is just too interesting to discard. (But trying to explain to my husband that my expanding and unwieldy stash is simply a retirement home for deserving mail doesn’t come off too well.)

There is a Japanese aesthetic called “wabi-sabi”, which appreciates the ephemerality of life and celebrates the beauty of the “imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete.” Qualities such as asymmetry, irregularity and unrefinement, and the way things wear, change and age, are seen as the authentic reflection of life and nature. “Shabby chic” is the bastardized commercial version of this aesthetic — things like faux-vintage finished furniture and mass-produced mismatched tableware not only fail to evoke reflexive spiritual contemplation, they defy the essential aspect of wabi-sabi that comes from age and wear.

The emotional reaction that worn stamps and envelopes elicit, and the visual aesthetic they possess, can only be described as wabi-sabi. There is a story hidden under each stamp, each air-mail sticker, between each rip and crease  — the more battered and worn, the more interesting. This is the reason I love mail from Nigeria: I’m not sure what sort of shenanigans are going on in the Nigerian post office, but the dirtiest, most ragged (and therefore most beloved) pieces of mail I’ve ever seen have come from there.

Let’s look at some stamps, shall we?

1. Africa Not only does mail from African countries end up delightfully tattered, it also seems to take a whole lot of stamps to get it here. Fig. 1: I love the purely practical layering of stamps; if placed one beside the other, they would have covered the entire envelope! Fig. 2: The bright colours of the Cameroonian stamps against the brown paper are quite eye-catching (and if you look closely, you’ll see that there are boobs on the green ones). Fig. 3: Instead of a person or an animal or a simple scene, these Eritrean stamps display an iconographical jumble of symbols, like mad heraldry.

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2. Asia Asian mail offers so many paradigm shifts, it’s hard to know where to begin. Fig. 4: The beautiful bird stamps from China are works of art in themselves, and only enhanced by the pictogram characters on the ink stamps and the brown paper background. Fig. 5: In this example from China, the stark red and green ink printed on the envelope works well with the lovely colours and subtle watercolour style of the stamps.

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Fig. 6: More birds, more beautiful colours and contrast from China. Fig. 7: There’s so much going on with this Vietnamese envelope. An ink stamp that serves as postage, a post mark, what seems to be an authenticity sticker over the seal, and another interesting retro sticker pasted on the centre right. Definitely the signs of a complicated journey.

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Fig. 8: A bill of lading from a Taiwanese shipping company. The stamps are simply awesome — especially the one dancing at the top right. The paper is very thin, weighted only by the thickness of the stamps. Fig. 9: Also from Taiwan. I love the bunny stamp; I think it references the Year of the Rabbit. Fig. 10: This stamp from Japan is simple, delicate, beautiful. It seems to be printed with ink onto sticky paper and then applied to the envelope. I love how the blue air mail sticker looks next to it.

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Fig. 11: This stamp from India is printed directly on the envelope, and the detail is meant to evoke the perforated edge of regular stamps, preserving tradition without the extra printing costs. Fig. 12: White, red, indigo and brown and the rough, functional stamps give this mail from Fiji an interesting, utilitarian look.

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3. Europe Design “sophistication” unfortunately keeps most European stamps from producing interesting iconography or brightly-coloured rabbits, but there are gems nonetheless. Fig. 13: The muted colour palette and the strong sculptural and architectural images in these Russian stamps, along with the delicately printed word “avia” (by air/air mail) are great. Fig. 14: These Maltese stamps look different enough not to have been bought at the same time, but the colour combination is stunning and unexpected. Three stamps couldn’t go better together than these. Fig. 15: The stamp to the right on this Polish envelope may be my favourite stamp of all time. I have no idea why that minotaur is clutching that lockbox, but I am DYING TO KNOW. I would also totally buy this stamp in pencil case, lunch box or tote bag form.

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Things I learned about design from hoarding foreign stationery (Part I)

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I love to collect paper, envelopes and stamps from other countries. This post is the first in the series in which I’ll discuss everything from paper size and weight, to the appeal of layered media, to the pictures inside airmail envelopes.

1. Almost every other paper size is better than letter and legal.

My first encounter with International ISO standard paper sizes occurred when I had to photocopy my professor’s transcripts from an Italian archive. It was only remarkable to me in that I had to pay extra for copying on legal-size paper to accommodate the additional 0.7 inches of the A4’s length. I had a thing for paper bags and tickets and other two-dimensional traveling paraphernalia which I amassed one summer overseas, but the items were more memorabilia than creative stimulation. It was only when I went to graduate school and was forced to interact with paper material ad nauseum that I began to realize how paper size — especially national standard sizes — influence design and use.

ISO standard sizes, those A series and B series you see in the MUJI catalogue, are derived from official German paper standards. (Yes, the Germans actually have an entire government department for that — the Deutsches Institut für Normung (DIN), or German Institute for Standardization. Check out the German standard font; it’s a lovely multipurpose sans.)

Anyway, the best thing about ISO sizes is that they are derived using a single aspect ratio. The A series paper are based on an area sized 1m x 1m (A0), which is divided in half to get A1, and in half again to get A2, and so on to A8, which is 74mm x 52mm. This system means that you can start with any size paper and simply tear it in half to get the next standard size down. A4 is the most used size and is slightly longer and narrower than our letter size. Second most used is A5 (half of an A4), which is a very useful notebook size because it gives a more generous page than half-letter size.

B series paper, seen more often in Asia than Europe, use the same 1m x 1m base, but the sizes are the geometric mean between each A size: for example, if A4 is 210mm x 297 mm and A5 is 148mm x 210mm, B5 is sized at the average between them, at 176mm x 250 mm. C series are use for envelope sizes and correspond to each A/B size sheets.

In terms of design, the ISO sizes are simply more attractive to design upon. The longer, slimmer A4 page gives a feeling of activity, dynamism to a layout, whereas the broader, shorter, squarer letter size feels sluggish and lazy in comparison. When creating a set of print materials, ISO sizes are so much easier to deal with because graphics can be sized up and down proportionally. A logo and layout remain relatively cohesive and simple to adjust for an A3 poster, an A4 letterhead, a B5 invoice, an A5 postcard and an A8 business card, and there is much less confusion when it comes to printing.

B5 is my favourite. It is so perfect for so many things. It’s the most beautiful size, for when A4 or letter size are too large and A5 and half-letter are too small — and there are so many occasions for it! It is a travesty that ISO standard sizes are not available in Halifax. I’m so obsessed with B5 that, when I designed my Forest Friend stationary, I bought paper in rolls and cut my own B5 and A4 sheets and made envelopes to match.

But ISO standard sizes aren’t just more visually appealing or cohesive for designers. They are also more environmentally efficient. Why use a whole letter size or A4 when you could use something smaller? We all know that everyone in every office over the age of 35 prints out their emails. (Why?! Why do you all do this? Do you suffer from chronic email losses? Have you not discovered the literal gigs of free space available on Gmail? Or do you just not know how to use “Search”?)

You know how much space an email usually takes?






You know what’s perfect for that? Anything but an entire sheet of letter-size paper. There is not and will never be such a thing as a “paperless office” (unless we go all Captain Picard and carry around iPads all the time — which actually might really be happening), so maybe we should all just get used to using, printing, sending, mailing and filing smaller pieces of paper.

Now, we Canadians are usually behind pretty much all the balls on the billiards table, but you know which other countries have adopted the ISO standard? Every other one in the entire world, except the United States. And I’m not exactly into sharing a lifeboat with them (because they would totally hit us over the head with an oar and eat us first).

My point — besides the obvious fact that not adopting ISO sizes leads to cannibalism — is that there is a huge letter-size box over the heads of us North Americans. Heeding the siren’s call of the aspect ratio will book you onto the first flight of fancy into Idea Town. And probably drive your co-workers and clients crazy when they try to print out that A4 pdf you sent them.

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