Howard E. Paine, 85, one of the United States Postal Service’s most prolific stamp designers, died Sept. 13 at the Loving Arms Assisted Living Center in Front Royal, Va.
A stamp collector from childhood, Paine was credited with supervising the design of more than 400 postage stamps — including the famous 1993 29¢ Elvis Presley commemorative — during his 30 years as a stamp art director.
“Howard was a Renaissance man … he was single-handedly responsible for much of the improvement in the quality of U.S. postage stamp design over the past several decades,” said retired USPS Art Director Richard Sheaff.
Paine was suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, according to Terry McCaffrey, the Postal Service’s retired director of stamp art.
“Everyone who ever worked with Howard would all agree that he was one of the most wonderfully creative, astute, and humble men we’ve ever met,” said McCaffrey.
When tapped for the Citizens’ Stamp Advisory Committee in 1979, Paine already was celebrated as the art director at the National Geographic Society.
He served on the committee three years before he was named one of the Postal Service’s six stamp art directors, a role he filled for three decades.
By the time of his Postal Service retirement in 2012, Paine had a hand in virtually every major stamp project, handling chores from selecting typography to designing entire sets of stamps.
“What a loss!” said CSAC Chair Janet Klug. “I suspect the gorgeous Lighthouse stamps we all love so much, created by collaboration of the two Howards (Paine and the artist Howard Koslow), will forever flash brightly in our albums. Rest in peace, Mr. Paine. You will certainly be missed.”
Stamps, Paine said, should be “documents of national character, even if they are tiny.”
Under Paine’s direction, stamp designs were treated as high art, objects that could be as small as an inch in diameter yet must remain clear and crisp in design.
For his National Geographic magazine covers — and his stamps — Paine liked big heads.
“The face is just magic,” he said of his magazine covers.
“I favored a big head whether it was a pretty girl or a tribal chieftain — even the portrait of an animal. A portrait is a compelling logo.”
Presley, Ronald Reagan, Woody Guthrie, Arthur Fiedler, Edward G. Robinson, Leonard Bernstein, Mahalia Jackson, Raoul Wallenberg and even Lady Liberty became big heads on the stamps Paine helped create.
“Howard was intrigued with the surprisingly difficult challenge of successfully conveying a message on the very small piece of real estate that is a postage stamp,” said Sheaff.
“Always keeping the collector in mind, as well as the general public, he was a dogged advocate for stamps in continuing series, as opposed to isolated single stamps,” he said.
Paine argued that collectors wanted stamps in series “because he strongly believed that stamp collectors preferred a series they could follow, anticipate, seek to complete.”
“He was a master at making what we in the committee called ‘severed heads’ interesting and attractive,” said former CSAC member John M. Hotchner.
“But he was so much more as an artist and as a genuinely nice person,” said Hotchner. “He brought a sense of history and gravitas to his work, and the U.S. stamp program benefited in many ways over many years.”
To his fellow art directors at USPS headquarters, Paine was known simply as “Father Art Director,” a reflection of their deep respect for Paine’s ability to resolve design questions, sometimes with a sketch on a napkin.
“When he felt he had a good idea, he never wanted to let it go,” recalled McCaffrey.
The best example was his concept for a set of stamps based on the shapes of clouds — the 37¢ Cloudscapes stamps of 2004.
His fellow art directors were skeptical, but finally agreed to let Paine present the idea to CSAC. The committee was reluctant as well, but allowed the idea to be pursued.
Paine’s Cloudscapes stamps of 2004 proved to be so popular that they sold out.
“When Howard was informed of the sales figures, in typical Howard fashion, he gave a little smile and with a twinkle in his eye, he humbly said how wonderful that was.”
Designs must be correct, Paine said, referring to his work at National Geographic.
“It’s got to be accurate. That’s the flag we fly under. The illustrations aren’t decorative or something for a kid’s book.”
While Paine was well known to U.S. stamp collectors, the changes that he made at the National Geographic were as dramatic as his stamps.
At National Geographic, he swept away the magazine’s staid yellow cover with its border of oak and laurel leaves and replaced them with large, dramatic color photographs.
Paine never studied art or design.
“I think it was all in my genes,” he told The Washington Post in 2010.
At American International College in Springfield, Mass., he was a philosophy major.
He later came to Washington to work for National Geographic where he quickly became known as a “design whiz.” Moving at what he once called “glacial” speed, he got the magazine’s cover changed and helped create a magazine for children and lots of books for National Geographic.
Asked to create a trademark for the organization, Paine suggested the “clean, bold, simple, modern” yellow border from the magazine. It remains the logo for the society.
He and his wife restored a historic house in the village of Delaplane, Va. In the house, his family said, he stored “the mountains of ephemera that he collected during his travels.”
Paine is survived by his wife, Jane D’Alelio, his former wife Mary Enos Paine, sons George, Ralph, Robert, Adam and Brent, and a daughter, Michelle.