Skip to Main Content

Understanding the Air Age: Extracting a Culture of Aviation (June 2013): Selling Flight and Preparing for It

By Guillaume de Syon

Selling Flight and Preparing for It

This issue of imagination has been addressed beyond the realm of artistry to include discussions about design and the way it was used to make aviation attractive.  The field is still dominated by descriptive accounts emphasizing beautiful imagery.  Such is the case of Henry Serrano Villard and Willis Allen’s assemblage of flight posters, Looping the Loop, and of Joanne Gernstein London’s survey of the Smithsonian’s aviation poster collection, Fly Now!: A Colorful Story of Flight from Hot Air Balloon to the 777 “Worldliner.”  Geza Szurovy’s work, The Art of Airways, echoes Gernstein’s by emphasizing the posters used to sell flight.  All three will appeal to a general readership, thanks to a broad, crisp text that frames the illustrations well but does not analyze their functional context.  These volumes join several specialized books published with the assistance of airline archives, such as Jérôme Peignot’s Posters, Air France, 1933-1983 and Scott Anthony and Oliver Green’s British Aviation Posters: Art, Design, and Flight.  A small but notable contribution is Swissair Posters by photographer Georg Gerster.  Swissair departed from the norm of advertising by emphasizing the aerial gaze that Gerster had pioneered in his own art: looking down to Earth instead of staring up became a trademark of the Helvetic carrier’s destination posters.

Other volumes casting more widely on design include Gregory Votolato’s look at transportation design overall, Transport Design: A Travel History, thus clarifying some of the relationships between different modes of transportation.  More focused works offer a small overview, like Keith Lovegrove’s Airline: Identity, Design and Culture, and more recently, the Vitra Design Museum’s exhibition catalogue on the same theme, Airworld: Design and Architecture for Air Travel, edited by Alexander von Vegesack and Jochen Eisenbrand.  Nonetheless, by breaking down the themes used to sell flight, these volumes open up new venues of investigation while at the same time seeking to bridge the fields of design, art, technology, and history.  Finally, Volker Fischer’s exposé on Lufthansa design, The Wings of the Crane: Fifty Years of Lufthansa Design, offers a rare consideration of the evolution of an airline brand and the cultural imperatives to which it responded.  All these works share a descriptive quality with beautiful reproductions, and show how airlines sought to make the flying experience as attractive as reaching the destination itself.

Other authors pick up on these themes and offer new angles.  George Banks, a British airline catering specialist, provides a descriptive yet highly detailed and entertaining account of airline food and the trials and tribulations of making eating in a metal tube an attractive proposition in Gourmet and Glamour in the Sky: A Life in Airline Catering.

In Flying across America: The Airline Passenger Experience, Daniel Rust focuses on travelers’ experiences in the United States, squarely emphasizing the evolution of consumer perceptions of flying, from buying a ticket to drinking on board a charter flight.  The breadth of coverage trades on the depth, but some of the anecdotal evidence is priceless, and may help a wider readership understand how air travel has evolved.