High-Flying Design

Posted inThe Daily Heller
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M.C. Hühne’s interest in the visual communications of airline companies came about by chance nine years ago, when he saw a beautiful old Air France poster in a gallery in Paris. This eventually led to the book Airline Visual Identity 1945—1975, published in 2015 by Callisto. During his research for this book, Pan Am, arguably America’s classiest airline, stood out and he decided that he would like to focus on the design/identity that captured the imagination and hearts of airline travelers when the industry was looking good. I asked him to talk about his hefty new book, Pan Am: History Design Identity (Callisto). Fasten your seat belts.


Pan Am was involved in design early in its incarnation. Who was responsible for this design?There is not a lot of reliable information I could find on the origins of the very early designs, including the early logos. Whether the initiative for these designs came from [Pan Am founder Juan] Trippe himself or from Andre Priester, the chief engineer who understood the value of good design and communications with customers, or whether the initiative came from one of the aircraft manufacturers such as Sikorsky, which would not have been unusual in this era, I could not verify. Trippe, too, clearly understood the value of good design and must have encouraged it. Having been raised in an affluent family, he knew the tastes of his customers, especially during Pan Am’s early years.


Was Juan Trippe an aficionado of art and design?Circumstantial evidence seems to suggest that he enjoyed good design. Regarding Pan Am, his decisions in all areas were made to improve Pan Am’s competitive position, and design decisions were not treated any differently. Trippe was aware that Pan Am had to do more than impress just its customers/potential customers—it also had to appeal to politicians both in the U.S. and its host countries.

The early logos were in keeping with the streamline marks of the age. Who was responsible for that?No specific information on the designers of these early logos seems to be available.


When the shift was made to brand “PAA” to “Pan Am,” was Edward Barnes, an architect, also the final word on graphic, interior and product design?

Edward Barnes was an architect by education, but having worked for industrial designer Henry Dreyfuss prior to setting up his own firm, he was also familiar with graphic and product design. On Barnes’ initiative Pan Am agreed to a detailed design study that would encompass all aspects of Pan Am’s visual identity—from the new logo to ticket offices, aircraft interiors, aircraft liveries, etc. Pan Am’s new 1956 corporate design was one of the earliest applications of comprehensive modern identity programs in the airline industry. Only Swissair had started to use a similar design approach four years earlier in 1952.


The film Catch Me If You Can uses Pan Am as the quintessence of Modernism. Do you believe it was the most forward-looking of the airlines?

Pan Am was the most technologically innovative airline company until the early 1970s, the airline that kept pushing engineering to its limits in order to cover longer distances and make air travel faster, more comfortable and affordable to the masses. The introduction of the jet age and later of the Boeing 747 were the final steps. In this sense, it was the most forward-looking airline company by far. In the 1960s there were probably few if any companies (in any industry) worldwide that could match Pan Am in terms of prestige.

Why did it fail? And what do you think has replaced it from a design vantage point?Many factors contributed to Pan Am’s failure. The most important was the denial of a domestic route network to feed its global system, while domestic airlines were allowed to compete with Pan Am on international routes starting in the mid-1940s and continually eroding Pam Am’s competitive position. After Trippe retired, a number of mistakes by senior management in combination with a series of economic shocks (the 1973 oil embargo, inflation, recession, etc.) compounded and accelerated the airline’s problems. The introduction of the Boeing 747 greatly increased seating capacities and coincided with the poor overall economic conditions of the 1970s and early 1980s. When the airline industry was deregulated in the U.S. in the late 1970s, Pan Am decided to merge with National to finally obtain domestic routes—another decision that looks hasty in retrospect and did more harm than intended, as these two companies were not compatible. Then there was the Lockerbie bombing in 1988.

In terms of design, other airlines introduced more innovative (and often quite strong) concepts in the 1960s while Pan Am preferred to retain its very attractive but fairly conservative look, but none of these airlines could match Pan Am in prestige. In terms of prestige, which was always a part of what made any Pan Am design appear so attractive, one would have to look outside of the airline industry for a successor—to companies like IBM and, later, Apple, perhaps.


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