Art director Derry Noyes reflects on 40 years of Love stamps

[Alyson Kuhn] Today, love is in the air and in the mail. The U.S. Postal Service issued its first stamp (above left) honoring love 40 years ago, and its most recent (above right) just two weeks ago. However, the long-running Love stamp series did not start out as a series. In fact, Robert Indiana’s iconic Love stamp, issued in 1973, wasn’t technically a Love stamp—it was a Pop art stamp.

Left: Robert Indiana cut the letterforms for his stamp (1973) by hand, from four sheets of colored paper. Right: Bradbury Thompson used five colors of engraved hearts on his Love stamp (1984).

Graphic designer Derry Noyes has been an art director for the USPS stamp program since 1983 (preceded by two years on the Citizens’ Stamp Advisory Committee). She has commissioned artists and designers across the country for 10 Love stamp issues. We chatted with Noyes about the series and its recurrent motifs.

Left: Corita Kent’s Love stamp featured a stylized rainbow (1985). Right: Mary Faulconer wrote Love in flowers (1982).

Let’s start with the word itself.
The stamp does not actually have to include the word Love, but once in a while, the word is critical to the stamp. Love is the art; the letterforms make the art. The first Love stamp—Robert Indiana’s in 1973—is unique in that the letterforms are his adaptation of his famous sculpture. People probably bought the stamps because they loved the art, and they loved Robert Indiana. The second Love stamp, by artist Mary Faulconer, featured the word spelled out of flowers. As for the third Love stamp, I happened to be sitting next to Brad Thompson while he was sketching it. It was so elegant and simple—and so Brad.

Derry Noyes has a soft spot for the King and Queen of Hearts (2009), designed by Jeanne Greco. Noyes comments, “I love how the design crosses the border between the King and Queen. It’s so fluid, and it doesn’t say Love. The design speaks for itself with the little hearts.”

What about the heart as a graphic element?
Oh, of course! We’ve had several Love stamps where a heart is the central motif. Recently, I really liked All Heart (2008), art directed by Ethel Kessler. Paul Zwolak’s illustration shows a running man carrying a huge heart. It didn’t say Love on it at all. On other stamps, the heart has been a tiny motif—such as the King & Queen of Hearts. And Peter Good designed Sunrise, a cut paper landscape with a big rising heart. The rays told you it was the sun. It had a nice spirit. And occasionally, the heart is almost a surprise—on José Ortega’s Garden of Love stamps, every flower is made up of heart shapes.

Garden of Love: Artist José Ortega integrated the type, as small as possible, into the design.

And speaking of gardens, what about flowers?
You know, some of the flowers that haven’t been Love stamps would have made great Love stamps—like the 2010 Lunar New Year daffodils, or the herbs that were issued a couple of years ago for the postcard rate. These would have been great for people who want pretty stamps to use. The purple pansies in 2010 sold particularly well.

Pansies in a basket: The illustration was adapted for this stamp under a special licensing arrangement with Hallmark Cards.

Hallmark artist Mary Maienschein’s 1939 watercolor of pansies became a Hallmark best seller. Image from the Hallmark Archive, used with permission.

Actually, I wish the pansies had been on a bigger stamp. The purples are so lush. I perfectly remember my mother planting flats of purple pansies in our yard.
I agree. And many people share that fondness—and perhaps that memory. The original watercolor, by the late Dorothy Maienschein, a Hallmark artist, was introduced on a Mother’s Day card in 1939, then reissued as a friendship card in 1941. In 1942 Hallmark began tracking sales of cards—and by the time the stamp was issued in 2010, almost 30 million pansy cards had been sold. It’s the best-selling card in Hallmark history.

Lisa Catalone’s 34¢ stamp with red rose, photographed by Renee Comet. The 55¢ companion stamp (primarily for wedding invitations) is horizontal, with a pink rose on a closer detail of John Adams’ letter to Abigail Smith. 

Another Love stamp I really liked had an unusual floral element—a single rose superimposed on a close-up of a love letter from John Adams to Abigail Smith during their courtship. It was elegant, a beautiful reminder of a time when letter-writing enabled people to express their thoughts and feelings. [Additional historical details here.] Ethel Kessler art directed that issue, and it appealed to overlapping audiences, people who wanted to use them for their weddings and also people who loved the nostalgic, romantic feel.

Generally speaking, what do you think the most popular Love stamps have in common?
I think they are pretty. They can be a little elegant, a little whimsical, but still pretty. Very “designy” designs have tended to be less successful. We always want to appeal to a broad audience—and designs that are sweet, even a bit gooey, are terrifically popular. The Puppy Love stamp [1986] did extremely well.

Other than making sure that the art will look great at stamp size, what do you think about?
I think it’s worth remembering that people don’t see them as single stamps except on envelopes. An important test for all of these is to look at them as a sheet. Often, they are displayed in a case on the wall in the post office. Some hold up really well when you are close, but not as well from a distance. The liveliness of José Ortega’s Garden of Love made it a wonderful sheet—10 different stamps that also create a charming garden.

Love Ribbons: Louise Fili’s 2012 design features ribbons that curl from one stamp to the next.

And Louise Fili’s 2012 Love stamp took that to a new level, with the ribbons trailing across the borders from stamp to stamp. Each stamp is the same, but the pane is like wrapping paper—it’s a continuous piece of art. For me, this stamp has great joie de vivre.

The Love Stamp Series Slideshow on shows all of the Love stamps in chronological order.

Photos: 2, 3, 6, 8,10 © 2013 StudioAlex. All stamp art © USPS, used with permission.

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Comments (2)

  1. Posted by notely on 02.14.13 at 12:00 pm

    LOVE this post. So perfect for today. And appreciate all of the history and insights. Derry: so cool that you have done 10 issues of love. Maybe you could calculate how many stamps have been sold and thus, how many people you and your group of wonderful designers have touched via personal correspondence. Any guesses? I’d love to know. Happy <3 everyone. ;)))

  2. Posted by Michele on 02.15.13 at 5:41 pm

    Thank you for this post. I have always been enchanted by the Love stamps and look forward to each new issue. (Same with Christmas stamps.) I love hearing about the inspiration and background of some of them.

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