July is drawing to a close, and although the tomatoes and corn are ripe, Fourth of July parades and fireworks and flags waving from porches and porticoes are already a memory. For graphic designer and collector Kit Hinrichs, however, flags are never a memory. For this longtime Pentagram partner who since 2009 has headed Studio Hinrichs in San Francisco, they are at the core of his amazing 5,000-item collection of flag memorabilia—the subject of museum exhibitions, books, and TV appearances.
On the occasion of the opening of his “The Flag on Paper” exhibit at the San Francisco Center for the Book, I had the pleasure of speaking with Kit about his collections. Please listen in…
Kit, how do you characterize the special relationship between being a collector and being a graphic designer?
The appreciation of visual arts, in all forms, is in the DNA of most graphic designers. From the age of 5, I’ve collected things: sea shells to postage stamps, Hopalong Cassidy memorabilia, Monopoly pieces, cereal-box premiums, tin cars and lead soldiers. Although I’m known for collecting stars and stripes memorabilia of all kinds, I also collect Victorian alphabet cards, Mexican folk art, handmade boxes, Rockwell Kent books, and various ‘cultural icons,’ from bobble heads to Japanese tin toys to Chairman Mao buttons. I’ve also collected ‘images’ in my head that I still call upon when looking for something unique.
The Hinrichs family heirloom, and the centerpiece of the flag collection, a 36-star Civil War flag made in 1865 by Kit’s great-great-great aunt.
What first got you interested in American flags and flag memorabilia?
Back in grammar school in L.A., I brought our family heirloom, a 36-star flag, to ‘show and tell.’ That was my proudest moment of the first grade! After graduating from ArtCenter College of Design and moving to New York I had that flag framed and hung it in my first rent-controlled apartment. It is the cornerstone of a collection that currently numbers over 5,000 objects.
How did you go about amassing such an enormous, diverse collection?
Like all collectors, I enjoy the hunt. Since my professional life takes me to various venues in the country, I always look for antique fairs, auctions and flea markets going on at the time of my visit. Because the base of the collection and my interests are so broad (historic flags and flag ephemera including Navajo weavings, antique spoons, quilts, vintage clothing, folk art, protest pieces, political memorabilia, tobacciana—that is, collectibles and antiques related to cigarettes and cigars—the opportunities are numerous. San Francisco offers several ephemera and postcard shows every year, plus high-end champagne-and-black-tie events. All that being said, I do go online and search eBay, 1stdibs, and other sites.
A selection from Kit’s collection of turn-of-the-20th Century patriotic lapel buttons.
Before air conditioning, paper fans were a welcome and practical promotional giveaway, especially at sweltering Fourth of July celebrations. Red Star Line folding fan, c. 1900.
Commemorative spoons sold at world’s fairs and in tourist gift shops have been popular collectibles for more than a century.
Can you share a few memorable incidents that led to special discoveries?
The largest handmade flag I own, 23 by 10 feet, came from the trunk of a beat-up Chevy at “Brimfield,” one of America’s largest open-field antique shows, in Brimfield, MA. Another memorable experience was traveling to the Atlantique City Antiques & Collectibles Show, a large, long-running indoor show in Atlantic City, NJ, where I met knowledgeable dealers from whom I’ve learned much, and with whom I’ve become good friends. That has led to many historically significant finds, including a Civil War Ironsides flag from 1863. The best resources come from meeting other collectors and dealers, who inevitably lead you to the best, most unusual, objects.
The Rodgers Battle Flag, which flew on ships during the Civil War and the Korean conflict of 1861.
Can you point out any favorite pieces?
Asking someone to choose the objects they love most is like asking which of your children do you love the best. My family heirloom, the 36-star Civil War flag, has strong emotional ties. But here are some of my other favorites:
WWI I Doughboy with flag weather vane.
WW II “Remember Pearl Harbor, Buy War Bonds” flag.
A 20th-Century handmade quilt.
A few examples from more than 1,000 flag-bearer lead toy soldiers.
A fully beaded violin case, 1891.
The late Massimo Vignelli’s “Non-Melting-Pot“ serigraph, which demonstrates through a collage of newspaper clippings the ethnic groups that live side-by-side in New York City. Created in honor of the U.S. Bicentennial, 1976.
Is there any pushback in years or eras when being “patriotic” is not the most fashionable position?
About patriotism and the flag: The flag belongs to everyone, not any group or religion or political party. It is ours—all of ours. People have misappropriated it, abused it and trivialized it, but it is perhaps the only flag that was, and is, created by the spirit of its people over more than 200 years. It is the ‘people’s’ flag. not the domain of the right or left or any special interest group. However, the flag is a political object, so there are protest pieces among the celebration examples.
Placard for an antiwar rally at U.C. Berkeley, 1968.
Has flag-collecting impacted your professional work for clients?
I never push my flag collection on my clients, but there have been numerous occasions when the collection generated interesting projects. I’ve been asked to design a flag quilt for a Land’s End summer catalog cover. It has been the cover of United Airline’s Hemisphere magazine, and recently, I had the opportunity to design two flag stamps for the United States Postal Service. Of course, every museum where I exhibit the collection asks me to design the graphics for their promotions.
Cover of United Airlines’ in-flight magazine. Kit originally created the image for an 1987 Tokyo exhibition of Pentagram’s work, in which he was a partner.
America’s newest “forever” postage stamp.
Poster for the exhibition at the AIGA National Design Center in New York, 2000.
There have been museum exhibitions… can you tell us about a recent or especially significant one?
It’s always rewarding to share one’s collection with the public. The most significant exhibition I’ve had was at the Nevada Museum of Art in Reno. It was not only the largest, 8,500 square feet, it was the most thorough examination of the flag in all its forms. We had the opportunity to design every aspect of it, from the exhibition plan to the promotions, banners, and the vitrines, the display cases. We currently have an exhibition at the San Francisco Center for the Book, ‘The Flag on Paper,’ which will be open until September 30 of this year.
Exhibition at the Nevada Museum of Art, 2008-’09.
Studio Hinrichs is responsible for every aspect of the exhibits, including designing the banners and promotional materials and organizing the display cases.
Catalog of the current exhibition at the San Francisco Center for the Book.
And books. What makes your books, such as Long May She Wave, different from other titles about the American flag?The books I’ve designed focus the reader’s attention on the curation of the collection with a designer’s eye. I collect as a designer, not as a historian or in pursuit of a specific genre. So I choose things that are visually stimulating and graphically exciting, not historically relevant or of a specific medium or category.
Available on Amazon.com, along with Kit’s boxed collection of 100 Stars and Stripes Collectible Postcards and his other titles, “100 American Flags” and “The American Flag: Two Centuries of Concord and Conflict.”
Looking at your work, whether it is a spread in a book, a Nature Company catalog, or a Potlatch Corporation annual report, what is most distinctive—besides the artful typography—is the masterful arrangement of objects. The same style is evident in the museum display cases. Is there a trick to arranging images for maximum impact (and charm) on a page… something about size contrast or tucking them inside and around each other?
I’ve always been an arranger, both physically and on the printed page. It’s the most natural way I design. If I have an approach, it’s simply to balance objects. It’s not a formula. It’s just how I see things. I’ve always looked at design as an ecological system. If you change one thing it upsets the balance, and the objects need to be reconciled into a new assembly
If young graphic designers, especially students, are interested in becoming collectors, what advice would you give them?
Most people don’t decide to collect, they just do it. If you are early in your collecting life, think about where you will store your treasures, and the best ways to protect and restore them. And watch out for fakes. But most of all, enjoy your passion. And don’t forget to …