Pentagram’s Little Black Books

An internationally renowned design firm’s private obsessions are put on public display.

In 1975, four years after the New York Times published the Pentagon Papers, a classified history of the Vietnam War, the international design firm Pentagram began circulating secretive documents of its own. Called the Pentagram Papers, they are mash notes to oddball visual subjects—everything from crop circles to buttons bearing the likeness of Chairman Mao—as well as a revealing peek into the curious extracurricular obsessions of the firm’s designers. Until recently, the Papers had been mailed to, at most, a few thousand friends, clients, and colleagues. Now, for the first time, the 35 pamphlets that the firm has produced over the last 30 years have been compiled in book form—titled, naturally, The Pentagram Papers (Chronicle Books, 2006).

The Papers began as a pet project of John McConnell, a longtime partner who retired from the firm in 2005. “We have a lot of people in the field—photographers, writers, collectors—who we know,” Kit Hinrichs, a San Francisco–based Pentagram partner and the book’s designer, says. “And one of these guys had talked to John and said, ‘I’ve got this book that I’m trying to do, but I can’t get a publisher for it.’” The book was a compendium of graphic-design conventions—for instance: “Banana. The ultimate phallic symbol.”—and Pentagram published the first three chapters, A through C, as a stand-alone pamphlet.

The reaction was swift and strong. “People would say, ‘Can I get on that list? Can you send me a copy of that?’” Hinrichs says, and soon the firm began issuing, on average, one Paper every year. At Pentagram’s semiannual partner meetings, ideas are presented, discussed, and unanimously accepted or rejected. Overseen by a single partner, each Paper is a chance to explore a subject of immediate interest free from the commercial constraints of clients. Hinrichs used one of his Papers to highlight his collection of American flags, which are shown advertising everything from wars to canned asparagus.

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The book was conceived as a way both to mark McConnell’s retirement and to celebrate his creation. The Pentagram Papers isn’t a Paper itself (the latest one, Number 36—“Marks of Africa,” a selection of African pictographs—is slipped into the back cover), but it acts in much the same way, culling selections from the originals and arranging them into four categories: cultural phenomena, personal passions, collections, and retrospection. Delphine Hirasuna, who edited the book, did additional research, Hinrichs says, “to give more context for why a certain thing, twenty-five years ago, had some relevance for a partner.”

Milton Glaser, the creator of the I ♥ New York logo and the current poster campaign to raise awareness of the genocide in Darfur, has collected the Papers since their inception. Seen side by side, he says, the Papers reveal Pentagram’s lively, catholic spirit. “That willingness to examine anything is indicative of a view of life,” he says. “Part of it must have been [founding Pentagram partner] Alan Fletcher’s understanding of where inspiration comes from—which is from anywhere.”

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