As industrial design icons go few are better subjects for art than vintage airplanes. They were certainly among the most appealing visual images in early twentieth century commercial art because they so vividly symbolized the industrial age and modern engineering (and were every bit as progressive looking as other iconic wonders, the Eiffel Tower and Brooklyn Bridge). Airplanes were also more avant garde than most industrial objects possibly because the idea of manned flight was so surreal – so Icarus – that the designs seemed to emerge from somewhere in the stratosphere rather than an earthbound drawing table.
With wire skeletons covered in ghostly skins, early airplanes looked both prehistoric and futuristic, and the advertising posters that idealized them played a huge role in elevating airborne phenomenon into myth. Scores of chromo-lithographic advertising posters showed bizarre airplane silhouettes of single, bi- and tri-winged planes swarming like giant flying insects. As testaments to humankind’s mastery of the skies, these poster images were designed to be monumental, yet curiously prosaic too. Unlike most common contemporary travel posters featuring locomotives and ocean liners from the same era, airplanes were not presented merely as ordinary apparatus used to transport the masses from here to there.
It was not enough to evoke the sheer splendor of early airplanes in poster art, the illustrators and designers found it necessary to create sensational tableau that awakened the world “to the practicability of human fight,” stated a newspaper of the day. The emblematic colors of these posters (and especially the European ones) ranged from deep heavenly blues to warm sun-drenched reds, which contributed the sense of grandeur to the ethos of flight. One reason for the posters’ brilliance was that Europe’s aviation pioneers were unwilling to concede that the Wright Brothers were the first to make a successful powered flight, so they vociferously publicized their own achievements, like Louis Blériot’s 1909 first flight across the English Channel, through mass art. French and German poster artists tried to overcome the gap with the United States by publishing considerably more artistic posters than those issued by American counterparts. And many of these posters were created to commemorate flights like Blériot’s, while others advertised air meets, like the Grande Semaine d’Aviation de la Reims, Internaionanle Luftschiffarhrt Ausstellung, Frankfurt, or Aéro-Club des Flandres. By 1910 scores of international aviation shows had become showcases for daredevil pilots and novel planes. Posters commemorating these events included sublimely heroic renderings of the great machines. Compared to airline industry advertisements later in the century that more or less emphasized nuts and bolts aerodynamic engineering, these earlier specimens celebrated physical form and ethereal spirit.