I almost never make flag books. All that waving and shaking and moving around is just too much for me. But lately I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about them in preparation for a course I taught this past Saturday at the London Centre for Book Arts. Before teaching a thing, you obviously must know about that thing, so I shook the dust off of my flag book muscles and got to work. (You have flag book muscles, too, but don’t ask your doctor which ones they are.)
Flag books were invented by The Amazing and Most Wondrous Hedi Kyle in 1979, when she produced April Diary. What did this first flag book look like? Well, here, look, I happen to have a photo of it:
The flag book is a very simple structure; tabs of paper (or, you know, mica) are adhered to alternating sides of concertina folds. These tabs (or ‘flags’) stretch and move against one another in the finished book, adding motion and satisfying sounds to the mix. To get a good description of the process of creating a flag book, complete with step-by-step photos, see Karen Hanmer’s excellent article in the Bonefolder.* If Hedi Kyle is the mother of the flag book, Karen Hanmer is its best friend. Karen produced my favorite flag book of all time, Bluestem:
I am not feeling very articulate today (this is day 624 of my cold–no end in sight) and so I will let John Cutrone of the Jaffe Center for Book Arts at Florida Atlantic University describe this book to you:
“There was so much motion in it; the whole country seemed, somehow, to be running.”
So writes Willa Cather in My Antonia about the ‘rough, shaggy, red grass’ in which Karen Hanmer’s Bluestem finds its subject. Exquisite words chosen by the author, and the artist gracefully moves us through the metaphor through pure visual construction. The illustration is printed on acetate and on the two paper accordions that form the structure of the book, which is based on the Flag Binding created by Hedi Kyle. Hanmer uses the structure to its best advantage: It is the printed acetate panels that complete the gesture of the book and deliver the feeling of ‘so much motion’.
Bluestem is an adaptation of the flag book; in the photo below you can see that Karen has tipped flags onto two parallel concertinas.
Karen is a flag book genius, and you can see more of her books on her website. I think you do have to be a flag book genius to make a great flag book, because like so many interesting and unusual book structures, it is all too easy to use it for evil. Bluestem works because the content and the structure, the layering of the imagery, the motion of the flags, even the sound it makes when it is opened, all work together seamlessly. 99.999% of the book ideas out there in the world do not in any way fit into a flag book structure, and when a good idea is abused and squeezed into a structure where it does not belong, it quickly mutates into a bad idea. Misuse of the flag book structure often yields a gimmick of a book. I am afraid to do a flag book. But I am not afraid to teach other people how to make a flag book, because I am a hypocrite.
It’s been a fun week, really. It is unusual for me to spend so much time contemplating a structure that I never use, and it felt like a license to relax and play. Look, I made this weird arrow flag book just for kicks:
But the week is over, and the flag books are on the shelf now. It is time to direct my attention to other things. Gearing up to teach letterpress next weekend at the LCBA, binding up old projects to clear the decks for future projects, and getting ready for the Artists’ Book Fair in Bristol later this month.
*Thanks for the link, Nic!