[Tom Biederbeck] Kit Hinrichs is celebrated for his design work as a Pentagram partner and now as principal of his own Studio Hinrichs. He’s also known for his collection of more than 3000 flags and flag-related items, which are the subjects of two books and at least one TV interview (with Martha Stewart!). Here he talks about his collection and what the image and history of the flag have to say about the United States.
How did you begin your collection?
The only family heirloom I have is a flag that my great-great-great-great aunt, Ida Peppercorn, had sewn in 1865. When I came to New York in the mid-1960s, I thought, “Here’s Jasper Johns doing all these wonderful things; I can’t afford one of his paintings. But I can put a flag up in my house.” So we had it framed and hung.
Like many designers, I used to collect all sorts of interesting things, but there was no focus to my collecting. My wife said at one point, “Why don’t you focus on one thing?” I chose the flag.
Number one, it’s ubiquitous. You can find it in all forms. And second, I also found it interesting as a design object. From a pure design point of view, it is one of the greatest expressions of variations on a theme, which is one of the core things that we designers do all the time.
If you compare the kind of guidelines that designers today create for the usage of a symbol for a corporation with what the original guidelines were for the flag, you’ll see the latter were so loose they allowed the people who used and cared about the flag to interpret their own flag. I think that is magical.
As this is a site for the paper-obsessed, can you talk a bit about the use of paper for this kind of material?
The fans that I have are of course all paper. The Uncle Sam flag fan is a rare example … I think Uncle Sam himself is papier maché. The traditional flag fan — or cigar fan, which is what most of them were at that point — is [simple]: You lift Uncle Sam’s head and the flag comes out.
I’ve heard there is a Lady Liberty mirror image of that. Uncle Sam and Lady Liberty — I would love to get that.
The cigar bands are interesting to me. We as a nation, before radio and television, had to do something to occupy our time, and collecting was one of the things people did. Companies would bring out series of things, and people would get the next one in the series and do something with their collection. [The interest] is not always the single piece itself, it’s often what people have done with the collection.
One piece in my collection [below] is a flag done all out of stamps and envelopes. That’s one of a kind. My understanding is it was made by a wounded officer during World War II; he had his troops send him cancelled stamps and envelopes with the capitals of all the states. He put them in the order that the states had joined the union. He cut them into stars. For the stripes, each one has cancelled stamps and envelopes from the original 13 colonies.
It’s a subject that always comes up, not just with respect to printed objects. The way we use the icon has a tendency to trivialize it. At the same time, I think it’s interesting that we [the U.S.] are probably the only people on the face of the Earth who celebrate their flag in this way. It’s something ingrained in the spirit of this country.
Oftentimes we make a distinction between the official flag, which is the flag of the nation — it’s made in a certain way, with a certain color specification and there are guidelines on how to use and maintain it. The government controls it. Then there’s the people’s flag, which is everything else. In many cases I find the uses are humorous. In some cases they’re political.
I find both equally appropriate. We couldn’t have a symbol with as much strength as it’s had without those political and social ramifications.
Learn more about Studio Hinrichs here. Kit Hinrichs’ books include Long May She Wave: A Graphic History of the American Flag and 100 American Flags: A Unique Collection of Old Glory Memorabilia (both with Delphine Hirasuna and Terry Heffernan). Watch Martha Stewart’s interview with Hinrichs here, or read the synopsis here.