Face Flags of Washington, Part 3: Seattle

Seattle, like its encompassing county and state, is represented by a flag with its namesake’s face — in this case, that of the Suquamish Chief Si’ahl (anglicized as Seattle). Si’ahl lived from c. 1786 to 1866. One photograph of him survives (detail above), taken by  L.B. Franklin in 1864.

Flag of Seattle, adopted 1990

The flag was ostensibly designed by Boeing engineer and Seattle councilman Paul Kraabel (1933-2016), and adopted by City Ordinance 28207 on 16 July 1990:

A RESOLUTION expressing the intent of the Mayor and City Council of Seattle, to celebrate the best of athletic achievement and artistic expression through the City’s sponsorship of the Goodwill Games and Goodwill Arts Festival, and declaring Seattle to be The City of Goodwill, and adopting a city flag.

The Goodwill Games were an international sports festival created by Ted Turner to promote cultural exchange between the Soviet Union and the US in reaction to the Olympic boycotts of the 1980s. 2,312 athletes from 34 countries competed in Seattle and other Washington cities in 1990, the first time the games were held in the US.

(Did a Boeing engineer actually design — in any detailed way — this flag? It seems doubtful, as the complex design appears to be the work of a professional graphic designer, but perhaps Kraabel was skilled in this art. If you know the story here, please contact us as info@portlandflag.org.)

As on the King County flag, the face on the Seattle flag is highly stylized, taken from the city seal. The seal itself has a long and interesting history, documented in detail by Fred Poyner IV in a 2009 article in Columbia Magazine. It was the result of extensive lobbying in the 1920s and 30s by Seattle sculptor James A. Wehn (1882-1973). In 1933 a commission was set up to update the city seal, prompted by the opening of the Seattle Art Museum in Volunteer Park and Wehn’s observation the “the cornerstone of the new building would be an excellent place for a city seal”.

Wehn’s design for a city seal was similar to the one he had proposed in 1928. At its center was a profile of Chief Seattle, whom the artist continued to regard as central to Seattle’s founding and historical identity. J. D. Ross had suggested to him that the figure should be “a noncontroversial subject” and that “one pioneer could not be singled out without offending others.” From this standpoint, a profile of the Suquamish chief was an excellent choice. Beyond all that, the image of Chief Seattle was stamped in Wehn’s memory from the time when, as a young boy in 1896, he took a trip with his father and mother to visit Suquamish, “where a great number of Indians lived and where Chief Seattle is buried.”

Wehn’s profile design nearly abandoned in favor of a full-face likeness of Chief Seattle, but ultimately prevailed upon intervention by Wehn and the city’s arts community.

Wehn’s design, adopted 1937.

Wehn’s design was featured on an earlier, unofficial city flag patterned after the state flag, created in 1943 by councilman Frank McCaffery.

McCaffery’s unofficial flag, 1943.

Wehn died in 1973. As Poyner notes:

The artist’s death coincided with a renewed effort by the Seattle Board of Public Works to create a new city symbol and develop a “corporate identity program.” In response to this perceived need for city government to have a cohesive look throughout its various departments, the David Strong Design Group unveiled a trio of new logos in July 1974. One of these, based on Wehn’s official seal design, presented a silhouette profile of Chief Seattle, albeit rendered with highly stylized lines and curves.

Revised seal design by David Strong Design group, 1974.

This is the likeness of Seattle that appears on the current flag. The problem, however, is that the current city flag appears… nowhere. Athen Nguyen lays out the need for a new city flag in his Medium essay Seattle needs a new flag and 12s prove it: How the ‘12th Man’ flag fills the void of a quality Seattle flag:

When Seattle City Council doesn’t fly the flag of the city that it serves, that means something. There is a reason that we almost never see the Seattle flag but see the 12th Man flag everywhere. As it stands, the Seattle flag is aesthetically unappealing and needs a redesign that represents a more modern Seattle.

For one, the current flag is overcomplicated. Although distinctive, the undulating lines are an eye sore that would be impossible for your average Seattleite to replicate. This breaks one of the most important principles in design by ignoring the power of simplicity. […]

Another problem with the flag is that it was designed for the Goodwill Games, rather than for city alone. It is for this reason that we see the “City of Goodwill” on top of Chief Seattle. Although the Goodwill Games were undoubtedly one significant event in the history of Seattle, this is not true today — especially considering that the Goodwill Games ended in 2001 after losing millions of dollars and political relevancy following the fall of the USSR.

This points to another design problem by imposing on another key principle of flag design: no lettering or seals. When a flag has to resort to the use of letters rather than using meaningful symbolism, it is already failing as a flag.

Couldn’t have said it better ourselves. (And we are sorry to note that Athen Nguyen died tragically at the hands of a drunk driver this January, at age 22.)

For more on the Seattle city flag, see:

Riley Raker’s redesign.


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