When commercial air travel first became readily accessible to the public it was considered a highly luxurious and novel experience which could provide great fun and excitement.
In these early golden years of air travel, when it was all wonder and glamour, vivid design elements and posters were used by the leading airlines to attract customers to air travel. American Airlines mastered the art of poster design and by 1937 the airline had already carried one million passengers on their flights.
Post-World War II was when the air travel industry boomed. Airlines bought new aircrafts which could cover greater distances and carry larger numbers of passengers. This newly expanded potential increased competition amongst airlines and thus increased the need for strong advertising design to capture the attention and loyalty of customers.
During this post war time, airlines started to place a greater emphasis on striking posters and elaborate print advertising. This lasted until around the mid-1970’s, after which the emphasis on traditional advertising through graphic design shifted to television-based promotion.
It was also in the mid-1970’s when all major technological developments in the air travel industry had been achieved and when the deregulation of the industry was introduced. These two factors brought a change in attitude and approach to travel advertising and to the travel industry as a whole.
One airline which was extremely successful throughout the golden age of travel, and still is today, is American Airlines. This world-class airline established its reliable and innovative reputation with customers through their creative and elegant poster designs and visual identity.
American Airlines, 1941
It was the union of over eighty small airlines that birthed the powerhouse airline now known as American Airlines (AA). Originally, American Airways, Inc., the airline was founded on 15 April 1926 in Fort Worth, Texas.
For the first eight years the airline functioned as a mail carrier company but in 1934 American Airways changed its name to American Airlines and went on to achieve huge commercial success. As a founding member of OneWorld Alliance, the largest airline alliance in the world, American Airlines was able to coordinate competitive fares and great service links with airlines all over the world.
American Airlines pioneered many ground-breaking achievements within the airline industry. In 1957 it was the first airline to open a flight attendant training facility, in 1964 the first African American commercial pilot was hired by American Airlines, and in 1981 the first airline loyalty programme was introduced by American Airlines.
Hanke, American Airlines – 707 Astrojet, ca. 1960s
The fiercely patriotic airline also achieved successful innovation and excellence within the creative aspects of the company. American Airlines employed the best talent in the fields of advertising and marketing to create brand images and promotional material that would capture the interest of the booming travel industry and solidify the airline’s brand and identity within it.
American Airlines recognised that travel posters were an art form that held great persuasive power. The airlines’ travel posters of faraway destinations were a top priority for the airline throughout the 1940s, 50s, and 60s and were always highly artistic. With their elegant drawings and innovative type treatments and colour choices, the posters created a highly memorable and trustworthy brand. The airlines’ logo was always seamlessly incorporated within their designs and helped establish easy recognition of the brand within the public.
The logo itself remained simple and instantly identifiable throughout its multiple redesigns (1945, 1962, 1968). The logos’ consistent “AA,” red and blue colours, and proud, cross-winged eagle became the iconic core image of the airline and established its dignified, proud, and modern reputation.
American Airlines – Logo Development
Travel posters should depict “the character of places, the manners and differences of people, architectural interests and amusements.” This the insight of one of American Airlines most prolific and renown designers, Edward McKnight Chauffer.
Kauffer is famed for elevating poster design to fine art. He showcased his celebrated style of sophisticated imagery and techniques in designs for a range of clients over his lifetime. These designs garnered him much respect and praise in the design world and to this day he is still considered one of poster design’s greats.
Kauffer’s designs focused on the places and the people of travel destinations, rather than travel itself. He created these images and designs with geometric shapes and minimalistic use of colour. This iconic and elegant style achieved great success for American Airlines and for Kauffer himself as a designer.
Edward McKnight Kauffer was born in America into a very poor family. He moved to San Francisco when he finished his schooling. On arrival, he worked in a bookstore and took evening art classes. One of the regular store customers, Joseph McKnight, lent him enough money to study painting in Paris – and he changed his name to “Edward McKnight Kauffer” in gratitude.
Kauffer arrived in Paris in 1913 but left one year later when World War I began. En route back to the United States, he stopped in London and ended up settling there for many years where he quickly gained much success as a commercial artist.
Kauffer went on to move to New York at outbreak of the second World War and soon caught the attention of American Airlines. Between the years of 1946 and 1953, Kauffer produced over thirty posters for American Airlines.
Kauffer’s poster designs are known for their versatility in style and technique and greatly showcase his futurism, cubism, and vorticism influence. A superb example of this influence, and Kauffer’s style, is the travel poster he designed for American Airlines to promote travel to England.
Kauffer, American Airlines – England, ca 1940s
The minimalist poster depicts a simplified castle against a vivid red background. The text on the poster is extremely stylized, bold, and geometric. The American Airlines eagle logo is placed in the corner and is the perfect subtle branding to keep this poster easily identifiable while still being simple and elegant.
Kauffer, American Airlines – Boston, 1948
Another major contributor to the development of the American Airlines brand is Fred Ludekens (1900-1982). Ludekens was an American artist and illustrator, although never formally trained. He was born in California and at the age of 20 he moved to San Francisco where he found work as a billboard painter.
He went on to join the advertising agency of Lord & Thomas in 1931 and eight years later he transferred to the company’s New York City office. In 1945 he returned to San Francisco and remained there until his death.
Ludekens was proficient in a variety of media and preferred to portray rural scenes such as fruit ranches, coastal scenes, and the Indians of the Southwest. He produced many story, article, and cover illustrations for well-known magazines throughout his career, but his stand-out work is the poster series he created for American Airlines during the 1950s.
The poster he created to promote the airlines domestic flights to Arizona is a prime example of his own style and the style of American Airlines’ travel posters. It is a simple, artistic, and well-balanced poster that captures the spirit of the destination perfectly.
Ludekens, Arizona – American Airlines, ca 1950s
American Airlines’ art direction, beautiful design, and inspiring imagery of yesteryear still hold up today as some of the best. The airline has continued to be in the forefront of design and branding in the air travel industry which has ensured the company’s ongoing success.
Today, American Airlines still operate out of ten major hubs throughout the United States. They are currently the world’s largest airline when considering the size of fleet, revenue, number of passengers carried, kilometres flown, and number of destinations served.
American Airlines, along with their regional partners, operate 6,700 flights per day to nearly 350 destinations in more than 50 countries. To achieve this incredible accomplishment American Airlines has had to continuously update and perfect their brand and visual identity. Their previous designs remain as beautiful reminders of the spirit of their time.
The other airline posters covered in our Vintage Airline Poster Series are about
Swissair posters. and
If you want to find out more about airline vintage posters or if you are looking to buy a stunning original airline poster, check out these poster galleries and collectors listed on aproposter.com:
-by Jessica Davies-