“A project of continental peace”: over 150 rejected flags for Europe published 65 years after creation
Between 1949 and 1955, the Council of Europe received over 150 unsolicited flag designs, each from keen individuals hoping to represent the unification it symbolised.
Although an extremely specific piece of design, flags have the tendency to raise the heart rates of creatives. A beloved craft for its ability to distil a location and its history into graphic symbolism, it’s also very rare we see a new design. Denmark, for instance, holds the title of the oldest flag design, dating back to 1625, whereas the newest on record is held by Mauritania which received an update in 2017. Our very own in the United Kingdom is a symbol we’ve hoisted up, both unified and divided, since the Act of Union in 1801.
Despite often being regarded as a piece of history, as recently as 2006 Ted Kaye – secretary at the North American Vexillological Association (vexillography is the scientific and scholarly study of flags) – wrote and published Good Flag, Bad Flag, a primer for any hopeful vexillographer. Written around five specific rules, the title advocates for simplicity, “so simple that a child can draw it from memory,” and the use of meaningful symbolism in the designer’s choice of images, colours or patterns. Ted also warns designers away from using no more than two or three basic colours, and never any kind of lettering or seal. Lastly, each flag should be distinctive and “avoid duplicating other flags” but when not possible, the creative should utilise similarities “to show connections”.
A handy guide for all, it’s only a shame Good Flag, Bad Flag wasn’t available in 1949, as the Council of Europe not only grappled with upholding human rights, democracy and the rule of law across the continent, but struggled to choose a flag to represent it.
An international organisation founded in the wake of World War II, the Council of Europe presented a hopeful future advocating for international justice. The task of designing a symbolic flag, however – which would represent both Europe’s turbulent history, a hopeful future, and the many countries which make it – proved a difficult design brief to answer. In fact, it took the council’s founding members until 1955 to choose its 12-starred symbol of unity, due to an issue of too much choice. In the six years from its formation to the final decision, the council found itself with over 150 unsolicited flag designs. There was no brief, no open call, no ask at all, but proposals regularly turned up from individuals who’d read about the need for the flag in the paper, or heard about it on the radio.
Each imbued with the creative hope the Council of Europe presented, these one-off pieces of optimistic design were filed away until recently published in Rejected: Designs for the European Flag by researcher and publisher, Jonas von Lenthe.
“I wanted to find out why this symbol suddenly appeared in this, for me, rather unexpected context.”Jonas von Lenthe
Jonas’ own interest in the European flag stems back to 2016 where (possibly against the backdrop of the UK’s Brexit decision), the designer noticed the flag’s colour palette and symbol appearing more and more in cultural and fashion contexts. “Hipsters in cafes in Berlin would have it as their phone backgrounds, and I couldn’t tell if it was meant to be ironic or serious,” he tells It’s Nice That. Becoming most evident when König Galerie started to sell its EUnify hoodie in 2017, “I wanted to find out why this symbol suddenly appeared in this, for me, rather unexpected context,” says Jonas.
Investigating the history of the flag soon after, Jonas read how there were several designs submitted and rejected, quickly getting in contact with the council’s archive who shared these original works. Recalling the moment he first rummaged through these design gems, Jonas admits “I was quite touched I have to say! They all share a certain enthusiasm for a better future,” he explains, “and at the same time, I could really feel the experience of war that all of the designers have in common. They say so much about the beginning of the European unification process but on a visual and very accessible level.”
As Jonas writes in the foreword to Rejected, these proposals came from across the globe, although mostly from men based in the west of Germany and France. Despite all “based on the assumption that European unity was the model for the future,” aesthetically, the flag’s designs differed massively. Visually many chose to reference the Swiss cross, “Switzerland serving as a model for Europe here due to its peaceful multilingualism,” or the Strasbourg coat of arms, “a symbol of Franco-German reconciliation and European post-war achievements.” However, there are also more abstract submissions including a map in “an attempt to situate Europe territorially,” to a tiger motif, a cloverleaf, references to the Olympic Rings, or a pair shaking hands.
In their variety, each of these submissions displays the varying “angles and motives for pursuing the idea of a united Europe,” writes Jonas. “The European flag was therefore both a project of continental peace and a means of establishing a boundary to the outside world.” The vast amount of options act as further proof that symbolically “the flag is used to delineate, as an early form of branding ‘Europe’,” says the designer, “it made the idea of a united Europe visually distinguishable and competitive vis-à-vis a national order for the first time, marking the beginning of a campaign of persuasion and advertising for its own cause that continues to this day.”
To detail the thoughts and ideas behind each of these submissions, Rejected breaks over 150 flags into thematic chapters. Grouped according to motifs “to highlight the ideas and trends circulating at the time,” Jonas’ editorial approach keeps the designer in mind by encouraging “the reader to develop an analytical eye onto the material to decipher the applied symbols.”
Starting with the more abstract designs, the first chapter delves into submissions where a colour palette led the concept. For example in August Vincent from Monte Carlo’s design in 1950, the flag features a white cross in the middle “to emphasise the fact that Europe is a Christian continent,” surrounded by a palette chosen from the most prominent colours in other flags. A more muted approach is offered by Walther Timm from Bad Nauheim in 1951, writing in to suggest a green and white flag, a combination “not yet implemented by any recognised state,” reads his letter. “Furthermore, it is a rather tasteful combination of colours. I would therefore recommend keeping it.”
“Ideas always travel, they tend to spread and take different shapes in different places.”Jonas von Lenthe
The following chapter then lists the many submissions which centred the flag around the letter “E” or Eu, Europe or Europa, before diving into a collection of designs prominently featuring the sun. It’s here that one particular submission displays the wide-ranging interest in the flag’s design, via a design submitted by the mother of J.E Dynan, a journalist from Kansas City who wrote a piece on the subject in 1950. “My mother saw my story on the flag… and promptly sat down and sketched her suggestion,” says his letter to the council. “I am likewise enclosing this with the hopes that you put it in the flag file for the committee’s attention.” Jonas’ very own favourite, although he adds that “there are so many great flags”, sits within the Europe-centric section. It was created by an unidentified designer who has hand-painted a design featuring many flags squeezed together. “I love the colours, and the almost child-like style,” he says.
Rejected then delves into the works of one regular contributor, Alvin Mondon, who submitted 12 varying flag designs alongside a long letter to the Secretary-General. Each differing in their use of symbols, Alvin’s technical drawings jump between triangular symbolism over to stars and striped banners. Meticulously drafted, “I think Alvin Mondon’s submissions are really great from a graphical point of view,” points out Jonas, “although I would distance myself from his rather military vocabulary used in the accompanying letter.”
As we reach the end of Rejected, the title centres on submissions featuring star designs, leading the reader through the decision to the EU flag which first piqued Jonas’ attention. Showcasing over 30 designs featuring stars – some painted, some collaged with stickers, or sketched – several hopeful designers lent on this chosen symbolism as inspiration for representing Europe. The most common factor in designs submitted, Jonas puts its popularity down the use of stars from the flag’s of the US and USSR, as well as the circle being “quite an obvious choice to symbolise unity,” he explains. “Ideas always travel, they tend to spread and take different shapes in different places.”
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Jonas von Lenthe: Rejected: Designs for the European Flag (Copyright © Jonas von Lenthe, 2020)
“I can’t look at the European flag or judge its design quality without thinking of what the EU stands for in political, economic and cultural terms.”Jonas von Lenthe
But in its popularity, the use of a circular star motif raised the question of ownership once it was finally chosen. As described in Jonas’ introduction, the European flag’s design is credited to Arsène Heitz, a former employee of the council’s postal service, but many others claim they’re owed a significant credit. From Salvador de Madariaga, a Spanish diplomat believing it’s his, through to Paul M. G. Levy, the director of the press and information service at the Council of Europe questioning the credit of his former colleague, disputers also include Hamburg-based lawyer Hanno F. Konopath – described by Jonas “as quite an ambivalent character” – whose questioning features in Rejected. Enclosing letters and sketches in attempts to prove his authorship, “I have been working on this wonderful task for many years, which I continue to take great pleasure in, as does everyone I talk to about it,” reads his letter, “and now I would like copyright to be recognised and protected just like any other.”
“It’s a tough question,” answers Jonas when we ask who he believes to be the EU flag’s true owner. “Flipping through the book you can see that yellow stars on a blue background, or stars arranged in a circle, have been submitted by different people and it’s hard – if not impossible – to attribute it to one person.” In turn adding that truly it’s a group effort, and the result “of a complex design process in which several private individuals, the institution Council of Europe, as well as the committee of European Ministers have been involved.”
To conclude the book, as well as reflect on the context of the EU flag as a cultural symbol today, Jonas features an essay penned by Marie Rotkopf. A writer, poet and culture critic, “I love Marie’s humour,” he says. “Her language is poetic and sharp at the same time,” and in turn, her piece “connects the historic archive material with the current political and cultural situation in Europe.”
Published in English, French and German – with the aim to contribute to a European discourse that is not limited to national borders” – Marie’s essay outlines the complicated relationship individuals across the continent have with the ideals of Europe. But for the title’s author, the experience of learning about these several almost-flag designers and the context of their submissions has led him to realise, in the case of the European flag, that “it’s hard to separate the design itself from what it stands for. In other words, I can’t look at the European flag or judge its design quality without thinking of what the EU stands for in political, economic and cultural terms.”
Writing this as the UK still sits in a frightening limbo of its own relationship with Europe, Rejected: Designs for the European Flag feels almost like a design memoir of the unity the Council of Europe represented. As Marie puts perfectly in her essay, it is “A flag for a new world, for outcast Europeans, a long journey, and always hope.”
Rejected: Designs for the European Flag, images via the Council of Europe (Copyright © The Council of Europe)
Rejected: Designs for the European Flag (Images via the Council of Europe)
About the Author
Lucy (she/her) joined It’s Nice That as a staff writer in July 2016 after graduating from Chelsea College of Art. In January 2019, was made deputy editor and in November 2021, she became a senior editor predominantly working on It’s Nice That's partnerships. Feel free to get in contact with Lucy about creative projects for the site or potential partnerships.