Paper money as art
August 18, 2009 1:06 PM   Subscribe

Banknotes are a fascinating look into the artistry and culture of the countries of the world.

To get started, you can spend hours exploring Ron Wise's database, Tom Chao's galleries, Islamic Bank Notes, KCShop's gallery, and ATS Notes.

There are several resources for collectors as well, here and here.

For some of the artistic elements of paper money, you can read Michael Bierut's analysis of the best and worst paper money, the designs of the new Philippine bank notes, a primer on paper money art, see some downright weird and amazing uses for paper money in art, and a group of collages made or influenced by currency.

For the citizens of the Commonwealth among us, see how Queen Elizabeth II's portrait has changed on the face of the various Commonwealth nations' currencies.

If you're feeling up to the task, you can help create a symbol for the Indian rupee.
posted by reenum (20 comments total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
Do any of these articles explain who designed the current US banknotes? I've always wondered about that.
posted by archagon at 1:10 PM on August 18, 2009

(By "designed", I mean the actual etchings.)
posted by archagon at 1:12 PM on August 18, 2009

That one about HRH QE2's head is begging to be turned into a noah everyday video, complete with the portentous hangover soundtrack.
posted by doobiedoo at 1:20 PM on August 18, 2009

I've never liked those bills that make the watermark too prominent. Like when it's a completely blank oval sitting in the middle. The article calls it "elegant and restrained" but it just looks like someone forgot to add the portrait.
posted by smackfu at 1:22 PM on August 18, 2009

Related previously.
posted by nickyskye at 1:25 PM on August 18, 2009

I may have mentioned in the past that my sister headed the team that designed the US "bighead" banknotes. She tried to get them to color the suckers at the time, but it wasn't until after she split for the great white north that the BEP got around to it. They've lured her back, though to the Fed.
posted by Mental Wimp at 1:27 PM on August 18, 2009

In a fruitless search for the designer of the current U.S. currency, I came across Michael Tyznik's Dollar ReDe$ign Project (with lively discussion following the original post). The designs include the Bill of Rights as the artist thought it is "one of the most important things about America." Apparently these designs were forwarded via email as the next official designs, with following clarification on Snopes.
posted by filthy light thief at 1:40 PM on August 18, 2009

I've always wondered, how is it that Canadian and American coins converged on the same denominations and size? (I know that recently the loonie and toonie have diverged, but the point stands) Was there a debate or discussion or did it just happen? Australia, for example, used 20 cent pieces I believe, not quarters.
posted by Rumple at 1:51 PM on August 18, 2009

Also previously
posted by longsleeves at 2:00 PM on August 18, 2009

I can't get really excited about Tyznik's stuff. He's a great designer, and I can get the appeal of designing the dollar bill as an exercise, but I don't see why it's necessary. The graphic design itself of the bill isn't really broken, so I'm not sure why it needs to be fixed or "updated." His designs are neat, but they don't look like money to me, and I suspect they wouldn't to a lot of other people. Don't change things just for the sake of changing them.

There are aspects of the currency that could stand changing, for purely practical reasons: using different size paper for various denominations of bills would make them easier to distinguish by sight-impaired people, and also deter counterfeiting. (Using bigger pieces of paper with increasing value deters bleaching and reprinting; there's no point in bleaching a $5 if you can only make it into either a $5 or a $1.) Making them out of plastic instead of cotton would produce bills that last longer and don't get as dirty. Some sort of tactile element would also be welcome by the sight-impaired, but could also be useful to any sighted person who's ever wanted to fish a bill of a certain denomination out of their pocket without exposing their whole bankroll to the world.

Providing and advocating for practical solutions to those problems is useful, but advocating for (and I'm not saying that Tyznik is doing this) a total redesign on the basis of aesthetics or change for the sake of change is just going to freak people out and prevent any change from happening.
posted by Kadin2048 at 2:01 PM on August 18, 2009

Canada left the old pound/shilling/pence system for the U.S. decimal system early, even before 1867. In days when coin sorters were more mechanical and less sophisticated, and when dimes and quarters on both sides of the border had similar amounts of silver, people probably treated them as interchangeable.

However, Canada kept making the older U.S.-style tiny silver five cent pieces until 1921 (known as "fishscales"); the U.S. stopped making them in 1873 in favor of the "nickel" we have today. So for several decades, the 5-cent coin at least was different in size and composition.

And of course, the U.S. has nothing like a twonie yet.
posted by gimonca at 2:13 PM on August 18, 2009 [1 favorite]

No such discussion is complete without a mention of R. D. E. 'Ootje' Oxenaar, the man who made the Dutch gulden of the 1970s and 80s, the "most beautiful money in the world".
posted by gimonca at 2:22 PM on August 18, 2009 [4 favorites]

My biggest gripe about currency redesigns, at least in the US, is that they've happened piecemeal and thus my bills all look different We've got 3 different basic designs still being printed, the $1/$2, the big head with a frame (I think just the $100), and the most recent redesign with the colors and no frames. I absolutely understand that these things take time and that counterfeiters move quickly, but pretty soon the $1 is going to be 5 or 6 designs behind. It hasn't changed since the 60s and isn't likely to change in the near future.

It is, admittedly, just an aesthetic concern, but, I would appreciate it if we could standardize all our bills before we start changing them again.

Oh, and there seem to be a large number of currency redesign ideas which shaft Alexander Hamilton, which I will not abide. Tyznik keeps Jackson and Grant but axes Hamilton? That's just lunacy.
posted by Copronymus at 2:40 PM on August 18, 2009

It's worth noting here the sublime and gorgeous redesign of the coinage in the UK last year.
posted by dirtynumbangelboy at 2:47 PM on August 18, 2009

I've been fond of these: Dream Dollars
posted by empath at 3:26 PM on August 18, 2009 [1 favorite]

UK currency hasn't been the same since they discontinued the £10 note that you could fold to make a portrait of John McEnroe (jaw of Newton, head of her Majesty if memory serves, internet is shockingly low on evidence).

I guess we'll have to borrow a couple of bucks from the USA and make do with lil cats, elephants and crocodiles instead...
posted by caffeinebomb at 3:27 PM on August 18, 2009

What I'd do with U.S. paper currency, given the opportunity:

Get rid of the $1 and $2, they need to be coins.

$5 - Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Reverse - March on Washington
$10 - Georgia O'Keeffe Reverse - Cow skull over New Mexico (the more sensual the better!)
$20 - Amadeo Giannini Reverse - Golden Gate Bridge
$50 - Edwin Hubble Reverse - Hubble Space Telescope and astronaut with galaxy in background (alternate if E. Hubble is too boring: Albert Einstein)
$100 - Gen. George S. Patton with prominent USA flag Reverse - U.S. troops in WWII

Now, was that so hard?
posted by gimonca at 4:51 PM on August 18, 2009 [1 favorite]

brooklyn is coming up with their own local currency:
The Brooklyn Torch Project is in the process of deciding on designs for the currency. Saturday, more than 50 people put their two cents into the design of the torch at Greenpoint's Msgr. McGolrick Park.

"We definitely had kids as young as 7 and adults in their 40s," Jeys said. "We had some really great ideas. Someone drew a kielbasa in the portrait space."

Other ideas included a mustache, a woman holding her finger over her lip, an ice cream cone and a man with lightning coming out of his eyes.

The committee will meet soon to go over the designs.
(also see berkshares ;)

posted by kliuless at 5:55 PM on August 18, 2009

Banknotes are a fascinating look into the artistry and culture of the countries of the world.

2 interesting points:
1) US coins are about the only ones I have ever seen that don't have the denomination on them in big old numbers like 5, instead of "five cents." There's a few others I've noticed, but not as consistently as in the US. Don't read English? Oh well.

2) One of my favorite banknotes is the old Singapore $10. The illustration on the back is PUBLIC HOUSING, and captioned so. The idea of putting PUBLIC HOUSING on the back of the US $10, as a pride of our country... ! Ha.
posted by whatzit at 4:16 AM on August 19, 2009

In days when coin sorters were more mechanical and less sophisticated, and when dimes and quarters on both sides of the border had similar amounts of silver, people probably treated them as interchangeable.

gimonica, when I was a kid, 30-40 years ago, Canadian change was used interchangeably with US change everywhere but in machines in the Detroit area. I'm not sure when that changed, probably when I was living out east in the 80's.
posted by QIbHom at 7:25 AM on August 19, 2009

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