Star of a One-Inch Realm

Ethel Kessler, the art director behind the new 2016 Hanukkah Forever stamp, is considered a rock star in stamp design.

by Sue Tomchin

Whether it was to mail your wedding invitations, a birthday card to your mom or a check to your mortgage company you’ve probably used something that Ethel Kessler was responsible for creating.

Over the past 20 years, she has served as art director for more than 250 stamps for the U.S. Postal Service. Stamp collectors regard her as a “rock star” in the realm of American stamp design. 

Conveying an eloquent message in such a small setting is no picnic.  “How do you bring meaning to a one-inch square? You have to develop a way of seeing, and understanding of what works at that scale," she said when I spoke to her by phone at the Bethesda, Md., design communications firm she heads.

The first stamp she worked on was a winner: the Breast Cancer semi-postal stamp that launched in 1998. More than a billion and a quarter have been sold, raising over $82 million dollars for breast cancer research. And her latest stamp is the new Hanukkah Foreverstamp that went on sale November 1. The stamp features an image by award-winning painter and illustrator William Low. A hanukiah, the nine-branched menorah, is positioned near a window with a tangle of snow-covered tree branches visible beyond the glass. The design reflects the Jewish tradition of displaying the lit menorah for all to see.

©2016 USPS

©2016 USPS

Over the years, Kessler told me, she has been involved in the creation of three other Hanukkah stamps, as well as stamps on such varied topics as weddings (two new stamps are due out in 2017); Christmas (four new stamps for 2016); the Lunar New Year (the ninth in the 12-year series came out this year); National Parks (a sheet of 16 different parks released in June 2016); and designs honoring such subjects as jazz singers Sarah Vaughn and Ella Fitzgerald and film greats Shirley Temple and Ingrid Bergman. She has also helped develop designs for stamps commemorating such social causes as adoption, missing children, civil rights and Alzheimer’s disease. 

Photo by Ira Wexler

Photo by Ira Wexler

One of her most complex undertakings was the 12-year-long Nature of America stamp series. She collaborated with illustrator John Dawson and a team of researchers and environmental experts in the creation of 12 sheets issued between 1999 and 2010. Each sheet featured 10 stamps set amidst depictions of such U.S. plant and animal communities as the Hawaiian Rain Forest and the Sonoran Dessert.

Though she isn’t the photographer or the artist, Kessler must develop a vision for each stamp. “I like to think of myself as functioning in stamp design the way Steven Spielberg functions in his movies,” she said. “He’s not the cinematographer or the set designer, but his vision for the movie is unique to him.”

Kessler’s work involves synthesizing wide-ranging subjects. “When I’m given an assignment by the postal service, I’m not given the answer of how to present it,” she explained. “Sometimes it means beating my head against a wall to come up with the right message. I must educate myself on the parameters of each subject and at any one time I could be working on 10-14 subjects.” 

The postal service expects art directors to know experts across the country. “That means if an assignment involving Arabic calligraphy comes up, I need to be able to call on the top expert in the U.S., if not the world,” she noted. She also needs to know who is doing what in the realms of illustration and photography. 

Some stamps come together quickly, but for others getting it right can be a long and tricky process. The greatest challenges often come when trying to illustrate a complex and painful issue. To get the right look for a stamp on missing children that she worked on in 2015, took “a lot of brainstorming” and 40 different versions from a variety of illustrators and photographers. The Alzheimer’s Awareness stamp from 2008 was also difficult and came at a time when her own mother was in the final stages of the disease.

Probably one of Kessler’s hardest assignments was her first, the breast cancer stamp, back in 1998. She still recalls how Whitney Sherman, the illustrator with whom she worked, submitted many different images until one struck the right tone. “This was a time when people were very fearful of getting breast cancer,” Kessler, herself a breast cancer survivor, recalled. "The challenge we faced in designing this stamp was that if it was too negative, people wouldn't buy it." 

That stamp was the first "semi-postal," a stamp approved by Congress to raise funds for a cause. (Congress has since renewed the stamp’s authorization multiple times, this year for another four years.) “It has really been a phenomenon,” Kessler said of the stamp’s 18-year longevity and continuing fund-raising ability. “Just think there are some young people out there who have seen that stamp on sale their entire lives!” 

In 2016, Kessler has art directed more stamps than at any time in her 20-year relationship with the postal service. She declaresthat she loves what she does. “From my point of view this is the most fascinating arena in which I could work.”