When Airlines Looked Cool and Showed It


In more ways than one, “Airline Visual Identity, 1945-1975” (Callisto Publishing) is a hefty piece of work, landing at 430 pages, weighing 14 pounds and selling for $400. But the true size of its ambition is how it reveals the optimism of the Jet Age through nearly 400 posters and images from airlines like Pan Am, TWA, and United, evoking a time now seen as the golden age of flying.

The author, Matthias C. Hühne, is also the owner of Callisto, which published the book in April. He provides a meticulous overview of the vivid posters and design elements of the leading airlines of these years. The most appealing aspect of the book is how it recreates that sense of discovery and wonder when flying was not yet a commodity — or a hassle.

Mr. Hühne recently spoke on the phone from his office in Berlin about what these posters tells us about the industry then, and now. Following are edited excerpts from that conversation.

Q: How did the project come about?

A: About six or seven years ago, I came across an Air France poster from the 1950s in Paris. I had never seen this image before in graphic design publications. I was just so surprised at how beautiful it looked as a full-sized poster. My interest started to grow over time as I researched how these designs were created and who was behind them.

The book looks at a very critical period, both for airlines and for the advertising and design business, between 1945 and 1975. Why did you pick these bookends?

I didn’t want to include pre-World War II designs. If you look at them, they are not quite as firm. Pan Am was a leader back then but they did not have that much to tell as graphic design. That really began after World War II, when the airlines had all these large aircraft on their hands that they didn’t have before. The business was suddenly bigger, and the distance they could cover was bigger. This is when they started to pay a lot more attention to advertising, and so on.

Why stop in 1975?

All the big steps in the industry’s technological development were completed by the mid-1970s, for instance in terms of size with the Boeing 747 and the Concorde. We’ve had the Airbus A380 since then, of course, but even that was not such a huge step forward in many ways.

Also, by the mid-1970s, the emphasis on advertising had moved away from graphic design expressed in posters and elaborate print advertising over to color television. This had really started before, in the 1960s, but the shift from these beautiful posters was more marked by then. What you see after that was not so innovative anymore.

And the experience as a passenger was already much more like the experience we have today, and some would say it has gotten even worse since. But the reality is that the large aircraft and the capacity they brought along, as well as the industry’s deregulation, changed the whole attitude toward advertising. Prior to deregulation, it was still important to highlight the qualities of an airline, because they could not compete over price. After deregulation, it became only about price.

Photo

David Klein. Silkscreen, circa 1956.

Many of these ads are iconic and whether we remember them or not, they’ve left an imprint on our minds. For example, there’s the TWA Fly New York poster from 1956 by David Klein that is now part of the permanent collection at the Museum of Modern Art. But the creators of many other posters are lost.

There is a poster for Pan Am, for instance, that I like a lot. If you look closely, the mole on the woman’s face is the Pan Am globe and her eyes have the British flag. It is obviously the work of a very talented designer but we will never know who. That’s fairly typical for commercial design. In some cases, the companies didn’t allow the designers to be named. But in some cases, too, the designers themselves wished to remain anonymous. Some were well-known artists, for example, who needed money and worked anonymously on commercial projects. This wasn’t art. It was commerce.

Also, corporate archives are often lost. The corporations don’t like to admit this but in very many cases, they simply discarded these old records. They didn’t think they needed them anymore. And they were probably not aware that what they created would have some importance decades later.

You mentioned that airlines emphasized strong visual identities. That’s changed quite a bit. If you look around today, all airplane liveries look the same. That definitely wasn’t the case in the 1960s and 1970s.

Look at what Saul Bass, who was a very famous designer, created for United. The tulip was pretty iconic and has now disappeared. In many ways the companies then were quite attached to what they had. They knew they had something strong.

It’s interesting, too, that what we see as iconic now wasn’t always obvious. The senior management at Pan Am was anything but fascinated by the new globe design when they saw it for the first time. They liked their old look.

Photo

Anonymous. Offset lithograph, circa 1969.

Pan Am has some of the strongest posters and advertising in the book. I wonder whether these designs can tell us anything about what ultimately caused its demise?

This is so interesting. The 1960s was really when Pan Am was at the peak of its success, financially, and in terms of prestige, as a symbol — a positive symbol — of the United States. They also had this graphic design style that was very self-confident and humorous. And you can immediately see from these posters that it’s a successful company.

In the early 1970s, Pan Am hired one of the best graphic design firms in New York City, Chermayeff & Geismar, to redesign their corporate identity. They came up with a new name, beautiful design and a great campaign. But by then the whole corporation was so insecure and all of a sudden they were making all those huge losses. Some employees even ran full-page ads at the time begging the airline regulators to allow Pan Am to fly domestically. I think that was their biggest problem, and when they were allowed to do so, it was too late. It must have been clear they were in an unsolvable situation, and I think you can see that.

I wonder if one reason these posters are so strong is because they were supposed to hang on the walls of travel agents. When people walked in, they’d point at them, and say, I want to go there.

They were really not art in their time; they were advertising. They were the highest level of advertising in terms of the artistic content. But still, they were nothing but advertising. And they would go anywhere customers would see them. In airports, in ticket sale offices, in travel agencies. Air France had these ticket agencies where the posters would be the focal point. And they would frame them very beautifully.

It is so striking that so few of these posters show an actual plane or the inside of the cabin. It’s all about the destination or the voyage. That’s so different from today’s airline ads that really put the emphasis on features like seats or cabin interiors.

Today, they have to try to bring across what makes them different. But the problem is that very few people would pay an extra $100 for a ticket between New York and Paris just to have a slightly bigger TV screen. That’s the problem the airlines have. They still have to invest in the best seats and products because that’s what the competition wants, but when it comes to ads, the emphasis has changed. They have to invest in their websites for instance, to make sure people find them.

So that’s probably why graphic design has diminished. There is also another aspect to this. Perhaps the industry itself is not as prestigious as it used to be. I hate to say that. It’s not what it used to be in the 1960s when every designer who wanted to be someone wanted to work for the airline industry. Today those talents are working for Apple or in the tech industry. That could be another reason. For airlines now, it’s all about the price. It’s not as important to be well recognized.



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