Design Trend Report: Mail Art Design

Design trends don’t get any more accessible than mail art design. Mail art is exactly what it sounds like: artworks that you send off in the mail, which means they also have to be small-scale designs. Due to its accessibility, this design trend has a very low barrier to entry—the defining element of its populism.

Empowerment is at the heart of this approach to art since its adherents get to bypass the usual channels of power in the art world, namely the various art galleries, markets and museums that traditionally control the approval and exhibition opportunities for artists. Instead, democratization is a key component of mail art design, as anyone who designs a piece of art that’s small enough to be mailed through the postal service has just contributed to this style.

If your design curiosity has rightly been piqued by this unorthodox trend, read on to find out more about its origins, ways of doing things, and eye-popping examples.

The History of Mail Art Design

The idea of using the mail service to widely distribute designs of all shapes and sizes began in an era when design itself was undergoing a lot of turbulence. The Second World War had ended, and America was a superpower with its new role in the world as the hotbed of a booming economy and prosperity.

In these flourishing times of the mid-20th century, a diverse slew of trends began popping up left and right:

Tucked in neatly among these influential trends was mail art design: a quiet and unassuming technique that was as straightforward as it was inspired. The origins of this movement go back to one man: Ray Johnson, an artist, and collagist. Johnson was noteworthy because he was also associated with other movements of the day, particularly pop art and Neo-Dada. His creative juices needed many outlets, and he would leave his indelible mark on the creative world with his new way of looking at the postal service’s potential.

Though mail art technically started in 1943, when Johnson used the postal service to start experimenting with this technique, it didn’t gain a wider awareness until the mid-1950s. Then, he started to use the mail in earnest to send out his so-called moticos, which were small, asymmetrical collages that featured pop-culture influences like brand logos and pictures of celebrities. He’d mail these out to his contacts and solicit a call to action from them.

Johnson’s invention entirely, here’s how the mail-art process would work:

1) He created a small-scale artwork, like the aforementioned motico.

2) He mailed this to a recipient, usually a colleague or a friend.

3) With the artwork was a message to the recipient, asking them to add some design of their choosing to the artwork and then send it along to someone new (think of this as the chain-letter version of a burgeoning design trend).

4) This sequence was to be repeated indefinitely, so the artwork would gradually grow in absurdity, character and, yes, even size (so long as it still fit inside of a mailbox).

As you can gather, this process was extremely addictive and inclusive at the time of its inception, especially in an age before distractions like social media, video games, and video-on-demand.

Participants didn’t need to have any art or design experience, just a willingness to contribute to this chain design. With its premise, mail art design, therefore, is a brilliant example of the democratization of design, where anyone from any walk of life could join in—as long, of course, as they received one of these unexpected pieces of mail!

It should be pointed out, owing to the populism aspect of this trend, that networks soon started springing up that extended well beyond Johnson and his friends. When someone received one of these early artworks in the mail, they were often tempted to share it beyond just their circle of friends, and soon this trend began to take on a life of its own, both in the U.S. and abroad.

For a better idea of what this design trend can actually look like, here are some mail art-inspired digital assets:

Interestingly, though, the term “mail art” was actually coined only a decade later in the 1960s. In this decade, Johnson’s activities with mail and art were in full swing: His network of friends and acquaintances who indulged in his innovative creativity were dubbed the “New York Correspondence School.”

Soon after, this movement enjoyed the opportunity of being promoted by Fluxus, which was an international cooperative of designers and artists that specialized in experimental art performances. Said performances put the emphasis on the actual artistic process rather than the final product.

In May of 1963, an early Fluxus experiment was to put on the Yam festival in upstate New York. This monthlong festival featured, among other things, Johnson and his mail art over the last year.

1970 was a banner year for this design trend, as it marked the very first exhibition anywhere for mail art design. It was held in New York’s Whitney Museum. The 1970s, in general, would mark more rapid growth for this nascent movement. It started to become widespread abroad, in places where oppressive governments imposed state censorship to prevent the easy exchange of alternative ideas. Two places, in particular, were Eastern European countries still behind the Iron Curtain and in South America.

The 1980s took this growth up another notch to the creation of festivals where mail art design enthusiasts could meet, talk shop, show off their designs, and, of course, plan more small-scale artworks. Two noteworthy festivals during this decade were:

  • The early 1980s’ Inter Dada Festivals in California
  • 1986’s Decentralized Mail Art Congress

In the mid-1980s, there was even a manifesto published within this movement by H.R. Fricker and Mark Bloch, two luminaries in the movement. The manifesto was a six-point open letter that essentially enshrined the purpose and benefits of mail art, while urging participation by more people.

Interestingly, the publication of such manifestos is a milestone shared by other prominent design trends, to either codify their founding principles or simply when schisms within the movement have emerged, such as with:

The 1990s represented a pivotal moment in mail art design: seen as a peak of sorts for this movement, its global activity of chain design slowly but surely began to move to the Internet, which in this decade began its wider, commercial popularity. A big factor in this sea change was the ever-increasing cost of postal rates and the comparatively more cost-effective means of virtual communication.

The reality the web offered to mail-art enthusiasts was real-time correspondence and coordination. It was now possible for calls to mail-art mailouts to be both disseminated and answered faster than ever. As a result, this lowered the barrier to entry to this design trend even further since newcomers to this activity were able to join at a larger and faster rate as well.

The Internet, therefore, helped to ensure that not only did this trend survive into the 21st century, where it is still a global movement enjoyed by millions, but that more people than ever could partake in it, promoting its initial cause of design populism and democratization more efficiently.

Today, enthusiasts of this trend happily take part in both traditional (mail-based) design interactions and web-based correspondence.

The Characteristics of Mail Art Design

Put lightly, using the postal service to design artworks led to this trend becoming a complete free-for-all for everyone involved. Since the only rule—for reasons of practicality—is that your design has to fit inside an envelope, parcel or anything that can be legitimately sent through the mail service, artworks are only limited by people’s imaginations. This again makes it a very open trend that’s really accessible to one and all.

That said, there are still specific kinds of methods and even materials that are more popular than others among mail-art enthusiasts, largely thanks to their accessibility and convenience.

Envelope Design

It’s not uncommon for some participants to actually spend more time and effort on the envelope itself than on the actual contents within. If you’re part of a mail art network, you’ll see painted envelopes where the handwritten addresses are actually part of the design. Design is also made directly on envelopes and packaging itself, such as with stitching or embossing.

Lettering Design

Core to mail art design, the writing on letters and the envelope is used as a kind of art form. Writing is also used as a complement with mailed artwork and even of spoken-word recordings. Due to this trend’s explosion throughout the world in the last 50 years or so, some of the most popular, utilized languages include English, French, Spanish, German, Russian and Italian.

Postage and Rubber Stamps

Proving that nothing goes to waste with this aesthetic, even postage and rubber stamps are incorporated into this design trend. It’s been a tradition for enthusiasts not only to reuse already made rubber stamps, but even to modify them for their purposes to their designs.

On the postage stamp front, mail artists have co-opted the so-called artistamp (which is a Cinderella stamp specifically used for art projects instead of as official stamps) to spruce up the envelopes containing their artworks.

As a result, mail artists succeed in creating extremely unique and vibrant envelope designs with these two techniques.

Copying and Printing

Mail artists enjoy recreating their artworks. To do so, they employ photocopy to create multiples of their artworks for wider distribution. As technology has progressed, so have printing methods. Inkjet and laser printers are also used to create instructive documentation for chain designs, as well as to simply reproduce mail art design pieces. Even PDFs are utilized to distribute web-based copies of documentation and mail art-related periodicals.

Miscellaneous

The beauty of this trend lies in its ingenuity and the resourcefulness of its participants. To that end, you’ll likely see hybrid designs, such as those that mix various forms of media in the form of photomontages and collages. Using this technique affords mail art to appear more like pop-art creations. It also empowers mail artists to design entirely original artworks that they’ll then optimize with computer software and finally print out for distribution.

In addition, a multitude of materials is used overall, including maps, stickers, tickets, banknotes, trading cards, packaging, diagrams, and badges.

Check out some more digital assets that have been inspired by this style to understand its various techniques in greater detail:

How Mail Art Design Works

If, after reading about the fun and accessibility of this trend, you want to join in on the excitement, what can you expect?

First things first: A quick Google search should find you a mail art group or network that you can be a part of, but what then?

Once you’re part of a group, there will typically be exhibitions or projects in which you can partake, yet it’s always up to you whether or not to respond to an incoming piece of mail and then follow the instructions included to modify or upgrade its artwork. Contributions to mail art are usually very open-ended, but there are criteria tied to deadlines, themes and specific sizes of mail and artwork.

You’ll be happy to know that all calls to projects and exhibitions have no censorship (for the most part) or entry fees, and all works that are sent in are exhibited. You generally won’t get your artwork back after you mailed it in. However, you may be able to get documentation or records from the organizers of a call to project after you mail your artwork in.

These exhibitions take place in an assortment of locations as unorthodox as the trend itself. They’ve been known to be held in people’s apartments, museums, shop windows, galleries, and government institutions.

Well-Known Examples of Mail Art Design

Though mail art is the polar opposite of many of the trends we’ve covered so far—insofar that its artists don’t for the most part look to have their artworks hanging in a gallery—the trend has produced a series of noteworthy and eye-popping examples that have to be seen to be believed.

Here’s just a small sampling of some of the most notable ones:

Ray Johnson’s Invitation to the Inaugural Mail Art Exhibition

It’s only fitting that we remember the artwork that commemorated the inaugural showing of this trend. In this case, it was Johnson’s own 1970 invitation to his network for the Whitney Museum exhibition mentioned earlier.

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Image Credit: Ray Johnson

A study in striking minimalism, his invite also exhibits misspelling for stylistic purposes (correspondence is misspelled “correspondance”), in addition to an all-uppercase presentation that makes it look almost childlike in its frankness. From a practical standpoint, the simple use of white on black color contrast makes it eminently legible and readable.

H.R. Fricker’s Envelope

The man behind the manifesto of mail art design, H.R. Fricker was also a significant contributor to this artform. His colorful 1990 envelope is a vibrant example of how the mail artist can use an extremely small piece of real estate as his canvas, applying different colors and visual textures like a painter applies paint to his composition.

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Image Credit: H.R. Fricker

The first thing that stands out to you is the maximalism of the design of the envelope, in stark contrast to Johnson’s invitation above. Not only is it a very busy composition, but it’s filled with different shapes, stamps, and messages. It’s a spot-on case study in how lettering can be used to great effect in design to produce visual texture that draws the eye of the viewer.

It’s also remarkable for succeeding in fitting in a bit of white or negative space to keep the composition from being overly chaotic.

The Anna Banana Artistamp Sheet

From the pioneer of the artistamp itself comes 1989’s artistamp sheet from Anna Banana, an artist active in performance art. Artistamps aren’t meant to be used for postage, but are art mediums about the same size as traditional postage stamps. Therefore, they’re ideal for use in mail art design.

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Image Credit: Anna Banana

Her artistamp sheet is immediately striking for three reasons:

  • The vibrant colors
  • The cartoon-like illustrations
  • The overarching theme of the banana

Together, all three elements combine to create a mail art feature that’s interesting and would nicely optimize the surface of any envelope, packaging or letter on which it’s pasted.

György Galántai Postal Artwork

From Hungarian mail artist György Galántai comes this simple-though-eye-catching contribution. From 1981, when the movement was really starting to pick up steam, it depicts simple images and colors. This small-scale artwork is a great example of mail art design that occurred in Eastern Europe during the age of the Iron Curtain, when the Soviet Union’s satellite states would discourage their people from having contact with the west.

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Image Credit: György Galántai

In fact, Galántai made a career out of corresponding with fellow mail artists all over the world, at the height of the Cold War.

Here, his piece is a study in the straight lines and rawness associated with Eastern European design trends, such as Brutalism.

All It Takes Is Mailing It in

Mail art design is characterized by two things above all else: populism and democratization. You don’t need to have any art or design credentials to throw yourself into this trend. Participation is free and global. You’ll also get to correspond with and, if you attend gatherings, actually meet creatives from around the world.

What can be a better deal for any budding artist looking to try their hand at an ultra-interesting design trend?

Designing artworks that appear on such small surfaces takes skill, patience, and true creativity. If you’re interested in exploring a trend that excels on the micro level, look into mail art design.


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