how to read stamps

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The Independent Culture
"My wife collects stamps." "Philately?" "No, she's been doing it for years."

Stamps have an image problem. Anyone who confesses to an interest in them is probably a spotty nerd. Maybe it's the arid taste of that word, "philately", which won out against the more logical, and sexier, "timbrophilia" in the 19th century as the preferred term. Maybe because we all use stamps, we are blinded by their functionality and don't notice their symbolic promiscuity. What most of us know about stamps, we could scrawl in mas- sive letters on the back of one.

London's Design Museum wants to change all that with a new exhibition entitled "Designing Messages: European Stamp Design", curated by David Scott. "Actually, just passively collecting stamps is not very interesting," Scott says, reassuringly. "Stamps are actually about advertising culture, about how a country represents itself to the rest of the world. They are also about the latest trends in typography and design." As Professor of French at Trinity College, Dublin, Scott was teaching a course on how words interact with pictures, and realised that the humble stamp was a pregnant and under-exploited example of that dynamic.

The politics of stamps, for example, are a main theme in Scott's book to accompany the exhibition. The "definitive" (as opposed to "commemorative") stamp is given a lot of thought by a country, as it is used to shout that country's self-image all over the planet. But stamps can also be sneaky. For the 1988 Spanish Armada commemorative issue, the British stamps took a feel-good, jingoistic angle. But the Irish stamp, despite the fact that Spanish survivors of the Armada who were shipwrecked off the Irish coast generally got robbed or killed for their troubles, showed a romantic picture of a brave, lone Spanish ship on a tempest- tossed sea, with the friendly Irish mainland poking out from one side. The dual message was: "We love our new Spanish trading partners," and "We're not like the English".

In his book, Scott draws upon the work of the 19th-century American philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce, who besides leading a notoriously libertine and maverick life, also found time to invent most of modern semiotics. Peirce classified signs into three types: icons, indices and symbols. An icon is a picture; an index is a "pointer" sign (every stamp functions indexically, for instance, by "pointing" to its country of origin); a symbol is a conventional sign, such as a numeral or a combination of letters. Thus, in the British stamps designed by Jean-Michel Folon for "Europe in Space", the "face" picture (above) is an icon; the "37" is a symbol, denoting cost; the Queen's head is an index, identifying a British stamp. Clearly, though, the Queen's head is an icon as well as an index; and the small "CEPT" logo (an index for Conference of European Postal and Telecommunications Administration) has, over the past 30 years, also become a symbol for European communication. It is the endless writhing between semiotic categories that makes for stamps' interpretative richness.

Folon has imaginatively humanised space in his design: the brim of a person's hat becomes a planetary ring, and space is no longer about boring shiny probes but about human potential. The perforated line that separates the two stamps has also become a date-line, separating day (sun in the left eye) from night (moon in the right). This chronological schism, however, is overridden by the continuity of the picture, suggesting that countries separated by time-zones are still part of a united Europe. Yet, to mollify sceptics, it is the impassive Queen's head that takes precedence over the European symbol in the indexical scheme. Very clever. Soon you too could have stamp-reading licked.

'Designing Messages: European Stamp Design' opens today at the Design Museum, 28 Shad Thames, London SE1 2YD (0171-403 6933). 'European Stamp Design: A Semiotic Approach to Designing Messages', by David Scott, published by Academy Editions priced pounds 24.95