Last month, when Design Within Reach heaped praise upon a newly issued set of postage stamps that honor sculptor and designer Isamu Noguchi, it left out a critical detail about the stamps’ design. “When the federal government gets involved with graphic design,” the San Francisco–based furniture retailer’s newsletter gushed, “the results are usually predictably ordinary….This summer, however, the government surprised us with some brilliance.” But the government didn’t design the stamps. Derry Noyes did.
Noyes has a U.S. Postal Service art director since the early ’80s, one of six the agency currently employs. She has long been reconciled to the anonymity, secrecy, and sometimes arcane rules that her employer insists upon. “When you work with the Postal Service, you give up all kinds of stuff….But you give it up for scope,” she says, pointing out that the mail reaches every single family in the country. She also likes the way her flexible schedule allows her plenty of time for her five children.
And for Noyes, who grew up in New Canaan, Conn., in a glass house designed by her father, modernist architect and industrial designer Eliot Noyes, working on the five Noguchi stamps held another appeal, too: “Everything,” she says, “kind of comes together when you’ve known somebody growing up and you finally can share it with the rest of the country.”
When the 52-year-old Cleveland Park resident was a child, it sometimes seemed as if design was all anyone wanted to talk about. Her mother, Molly Noyes, was an interior decorator who often worked alongside her father. And such celebrated design figures as Noguchi, Charles and Ray Eames, Marcel Breuer, Philip Johnson, and Alexander Calder were always dropping in to share their ideas. “There was some kind of fever,” recalls Noyes, explaining that her father was always seeking out bold designers to work with. “They all felt they had this mission. The old seemed irrelevant, and they had to make a new language of architecture.”
Calder was a gruff bear of a man. Noyes found him a little scary, but she could also see that he loved kids and loved having his artwork played with and touched and blown on. As a youngster, she treated his stabile Black Beast, which is still sitting in her mother’s garden, like a jungle gym. Remembering how Calder laughed when the Noyes family dog chewed up one of his maquettes—known, from then on, as Dog Bait—Noyes says, “I think he’d be horrified to learn that people can’t touch [his work] now in museums.”
Outside of museums, there is one way that people can easily touch Calder’s work—or at least a facsimile of it: In 1998, Noyes designed a series of Calder stamps. She also did the Philip Johnson stamp scheduled to be issued next year. But her work for the Postal Service is hardly confined to celebrating her parents’ fancy friends: Noyes churns out about 15 different stamp designs every year, on subjects ranging from Georgia O’Keeffe to the Chinese New Year to New York City firefighters.
According to Terry McCaffrey, the Postal Service’s manager of stamp development, Noyes is one of the most creative art directors he’s ever worked with. “She is so in command of her designs,” he says. “She always knows what she’s doing.”
All Postal Service art directors have a specialty—flight or film history or, in Noyes’ case, fine art. It’s a career she was long in preparing for: As a girl, she attended an arts-oriented boarding school in Vermont. During summer vacations, when she joined her family on Martha’s Vineyard, her parents encouraged her to take up projects such as silk-screening and weaving.
“You were just busy with making things all the time,” she says. “That was how our family spent time together….My father was always painting or drawing or making plaster-of-Paris pieces of sculpture on the beach. My brother would be making films of everybody. My other brother would be drawing us.”
Those brothers went on to work in architecture and film. As an undergraduate at Hampshire College in Amherst, Mass., Noyes toyed with the idea of becoming a biologist, but she soon found her way to the field that came easiest to her: design. It was only while she was earning an MFA from the Yale University School of Art, she says, that she realized how extraordinary her childhood had been. “I never left it. I just carried on, continued.”
Noyes doesn’t pick the subjects of her stamps herself. That weighty decision is left to the Citizen Stamp Advisory Committee, a panel of educators, historians, designers, and other figures—including ESPN basketball commentator Digger Phelps. Before 1957, when the committee was established, Congress decided the subjects of stamps, often voting for pork-barrel subjects such the poultry industry and trade unions. These days, the committee meets several times a year to sort through requests received from the public; on average, it gets about 50,000 suggestions a year, which it whittles down to 25.
It’s McCaffrey’s job to assign those topics to the art directors, who figure out what they want and then hire an appropriate illustrator, photographer, or graphic designer. Usually, after being OK’d by the postmaster general, stamps are issued two or three years after their completion. In some cases, they take as long as 10 years to be issued. All the while, Noyes and her colleagues operate under the strictest secrecy—according to McCaffrey, the philatelic community is always trying to infiltrate his office to figure out what new stamps are about to be issued.
Because the Postal Service must wait at least a decade after someone dies to commemorate him—even Dale Earnhardt, the NASCAR driver whose fans have bombarded the post office with requests for a stamp—Noyes has to steer her photographers away from living subjects. But a few years ago, she was assigned a ballet stamp and told that its primary audience would be little girls. She thought that depicting a tutu and ballet shoes would be dumbing down her subject, so she decided to go with a photograph of a grown-up ballerina en pointe, her body frozen in a grace that seemed simultaneously impossible and effortless.
Noyes digitally altered the ballerina’s face so that she would be unrecognizable. “It’s commemorating ballet, not the woman,” she explains. But the dancer’s mother was unimpressed with this logic: After the stamp was issued, she divulged her daughter’s identity to the media.
On another occasion, due to a special order from the White House, the Postal Service broke its own rule about depicting people who are still alive. The Noyes-designed 9/11 firefighters stamp that was issued in 2002 bears, unaltered, the now-famous photograph of three firefighters raising the American flag at Ground Zero. Noyes says she wanted to crop one of the figures out because she thought it would make the image more compelling, but her hands were tied. “We treated it differently than anything we’d ever done before,” she says.
For the Noguchi stamps, which commemorate the Japanese-American artist’s 100th birth year, Noyes went through hundreds of designs in order to find five that would show the breadth of his work. One stamp bears a realistic sculpture of a woman’s head, because Noyes thought that most people wouldn’t want all of the designs to depict Noguchi’s abstract sculpture. Over the years, she has come to understand that most people haven’t been trained to appreciate modernist design in the way she has. Even her husband, she points out laughingly, will see an abstract piece and say, “That looks like a doughnut to me.”
“The general public is trying [your designs] out at the post office,” she says. “If it’s too cutting-edge, those are going to end up getting shredded.”
Noyes briefly met Noguchi when she was 18, after her father commissioned him to create a sculpture for the IBM building he was designing in Armonk, N.Y. But her most substantial interaction with him came 12 years later, when she was designing the brochures and maps for an international sculptors’ convention to be held in Washington. Noguchi gave her a tour of his house in Long Island City, N.Y., now a museum devoted to his work. Despite her familiarity with the artist’s blending of traditional Japanese techniques with the ideas and needs of Western modernism, Noyes was transformed.
“He truly felt everything was sculpture, and I hadn’t really formed any opinions about sculpture yet in my life,” Noyes recalls. “And it was an eye-opening experience to be led by a master.”
Appropriately, another Noguchi stamp focuses on a detail of an abstract figure: Noyes wanted to emphasize the immaculate craftsmanship with which each section was joined to the other. She also threw in an image of an mulberry-paper-covered Akari lamp, for which Noguchi borrowed the bent-wood technique used to make dumpling steamers, because she knew that many people might have seen its ubiquitous knockoffs without knowing who was responsible for the original design.
“I wanted to include something that everybody sees daily,” she says, comparing Noguchi’s lamps to Calder’s mobiles, which have also spawned countless imitations. And because she didn’t want to distract from the purity of Noguchi’s lines, Noyes worked exclusively in black and white, altering images she obtained from the Isamu Noguchi Foundation, which runs the museum-house where Noyes visited the artist.
The ultimate mark of a stamp’s success, of course, is whether its printing of 57 million copies or so sells out completely. Noyes’ Calder stamps have had that good fortune; so has a series she did about spaying or neutering your pet. So far, it’s too early to tell whether the Noguchi stamps will join those, but, Noyes says, “Sculpture is a hard thing for people, probably, to understand. So you hope that if people run across something and like it, then you think, Well, maybe I’ve succeeded.”
Noyes is full of reasons why she likes Noguchi’s art, but as she reels them off, it begins to sound as if she’s describing her own work as well. “Some artists are so precious, [their work is] only in museums,” she says. “It’s only for those who have the eye for it. Whereas Noguchi was trying to reach out for everybody.”CP