“Flags are soaring symbols of pride and community, as well as emotional, incendiary sparks for those on the other side of the barricade. They are among the most immediate, primal, and communicative forms of design.”
In 1976, a young man named Gilbert Baker conducted that great creative act of “bisociation,” bringing two unrelated concepts together into something revolutionary. He fused vexillography — the art-science of designing flags — with the groundswell of the LGBT rights movement, spearheaded by his friend Harvey Milk. Baker incubated the idea for the next two years and on June 25, 1978, he raised the first two rainbow flags at the United Nations Plaza in downtown San Francisco. He was twenty-seven.
Nearly forty years later, the Museum of Modern Art acquired the iconic rainbow flag into its permanent design collection — a visionary move by Paola Antonelli, MoMA’s Senior Curator of Architecture and Design, who has previously acquired the @ symbol in her continual quest to expand our understanding of design as a force of culture and an agent of civic discourse.
There is a poignant parallel between this acquisition and Antonelli’s 2011 exhibition Talk to Me, which examined the communication and interaction between people and (mostly digital) objects. The rainbow flag is an utterly analog yet highly interactive object — a flag only flies on the wings of wind or human hands, or else it collapses into limp fabric — that speaks to and with people powerfully. It embodies Antonelli’s famous words from her Talk to Me essay: “In our relationship with objects, as in any relationship, indifference is the worst offense and laziness the worst sin.”
There is also a profound resonance with her more recent Design and Violence project, as the rainbow flag was a telegraphic response to the Stonewall riots that catalyzed the political momentum of the LGBT rights movement. The flag became an inclusive celebration of those violently excluded by nation and state, the people whose basic human and civic rights were being denied and outright violated by the very entities supposed to protect them — the same entities belonging to which traditional national flags symbolize.
I spoke with Antonelli about her rationale behind the acquisition and its broader cultural implications:
Flags are soaring symbols of pride and community, as well as emotional, incendiary sparks for those on the other side of the barricade. They are among the most immediate, primal, and communicative forms of design. They are made of icons and become icons themselves — even more so when they come to represent a long struggle, as does the rainbow flag: bright, simple, luminous, positive despite everything. The epitome of grace under pressure, a design feat. When it was born almost 40 years ago, it defied violence and prejudice. Sadly, it still does, in some places. There is no prouder addition to our collection than a great design object about real life and tough issues.
Antonelli and her curatorial assistant, Michelle Millar Fisher, kindly shared this exclusive recording of Fisher’s conversation with Baker about the origin story of his iconic creation and its enduring impact in the world. Transcribed highlights below — please enjoy.
On being inadvertently initiated into vexillography and how the rainbow flag was born:
It started hitting me in 1976, [which was] the bicentennial of the United States… I began to notice the American flag — which is where a lot of the rainbow flag comes from… All of a sudden I’m looking at the American flag everywhere — from Jasper Johns paintings to trashy jeans in the GAP and all kinds of tchotchkes. And I [realized] a flag is something that’s really different than any other form of art — it’s not a painting, it’s not just cloth, it is not a logo. It functions in so many ways, it’s interpreted in so many different ways.
And I thought that’s the kind of symbol that we needed as a people — something that everyone instantly understands. It doesn’t have to say the word [like] it doesn’t say “United States” on the American flag, but everyone knows visually what that means… I decided that we should have a flag, that a flag fit us as a symbol, that we’re a people — a tribe, if you will — and flags are about proclaiming power, so it’s very appropriate that we have that kind of symbol.
On being at the right place at the right time — a fruitful intersection of culture, conviction, and craft:
I was a big drag queen in 1970s San Francisco [and] I knew how to sew — I was in the right place at the right time to make the thing that we needed. It was necessary to have the rainbow flag, because up until then we had the pink triangle — the pink triangle came from the Nazis [and] was the symbol that they would use to still label us, but it came from such a horrible place of murder and Holocaust and Hitler. We needed something beautiful — something from us, and the rainbow is so perfect because it really fits our diversity in the sense of our race, our gender, all of those things, our ages… Plus, it’s a natural flag — it’s from the sky…
Because I was in San Francisco in the early seventies [knowing how to sow] translated into being the guy that would make banners for protest marches… and that became … my role in the movement. My craft … became my activism.
Harvey Milk … carried a really great message about how important it was to be visible, how important it was to come out… That was the single most important thing — our job, as gay people, was to come out, be visible, to live in the truth… to get out of the lie. And a flag really fit that mission — because that’s a way of proclaiming your visibility.
On being very deliberate about the birthplace of the flag and how this inclusive intention has since been reflected in the universal language the flag carried around the world:
The United Nations Plaza wasn’t an accident. That was very deliberate — because, even in those days, [our] vision was that we’re a global struggle, this is a global human rights issue.
Much has changed for some [but] as a global vision, we’re way far from that. We’re still dealing with huge, massive resistance — even here, in our own country; even here, in our own city; in our own families… What the rainbow has given [gay people] is a thing that kind of connects us. I [travel] and I see a rainbow flag and I think … that’s a kindred spirit or it’s a safe place to go… It’s sort of a language onto itself… The beauty of it is the way that’s connected us, and that’s the wonder of it.
See more of Baker’s work — including a series of limited-edition handmade rainbow flags — on his site. Complement this milestone for design and human rights with the illustrated biography of Harvey Milk, the the greatest LGBT children’s books, and these vintage photos of the first-ever Pride parades.