It was 1978, and San Francisco’s gay community was on the hunt for a symbol that represented their fight for equal rights. So Gilbert Baker, a 27-year-old artist and drag queen, began brainstorming. He felt his people needed an icon that would simultaneously communicate beauty, diversity, and power. It also had to be easily replicable. Then it hit him.
Armed with sewing skills he had honed while assembling costumes for his lady alter ego “Busty Ross,” Baker pieced together the world’s first rainbow flag. It had eight brilliantly saturated stripes—pink for sexuality, red for life, orange for healing, yellow for sunlight, green for nature, turquoise for magic, blue for peace, and purple for spirit—that could be flown proudly in the air.
Before long, it would become the most prominent symbol of the international gay rights movement.
This past week, Baker died at the age of 65 at his home in New York City. And while his death was premature, he lived long enough to see the rainbow flag proliferate across the globe as a rallying cry for equal rights—and even enter into the Museum of Modern Art
’s permanent collection, where it’s been lauded as a crowning example of effective social design.
At the urging of Paola Antonelli, MoMA’s senior curator of architecture and design, and Michelle Fisher, the department’s curatorial assistant, the museum purchased one of Baker’s flags in 2015. To some, the acquisition was an anomaly for a major museum, where
paintings valued at seven-figure sums also reside. Versions of Baker’s flag, on the other hand, can be purchased for $75 and less in the MoMA shop and on FlagsImporter.com.
But Antonelli and Fisher believe the flag’s accessibility—and ubiquity, in some areas of the world—are precisely what make it an influential and historic cultural object. “Baker wanted everyone to have it and to benefit from it,” says Antonelli of the flag. “And from this generosity was born a design success,” continues Fisher.