Retro Graphic Design Takes Flight in the Golden Era of Airline Posters

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It wasn’t until the 1950s that commercial aviation became popular, which carved out an entire niche for graphic designers. A few of the ads at the heart of this retro graphic design era are on view in The Golden Age of Graphic Design 1950’s- 60’s: The ‘Mad Men’ of The Airline Poster, which is an exhibition on at the Chicago Center for the Print in Chicago. From Paris to London and all the way to the sunny beaches of Los Angeles, it showcases graphic design masterpieces by a selected few designers who helped sell airline tickets to the well-heeled.

But the golden era of graphic design was also the golden era of airline travel, at least in the picture-perfect advertisements. In reality, there were long security lineups, planes packed to capacity and fees for everything; be it bags of pretzels to plastic cups of soda (has much changed, really?). Back then, however, hospitality in the air was glamorous – flight attendants served full-course meals, dressed to the nines and leg room was ample. People could smoke on planes, booze was served like water and a special section of the plane had a bar and bartender.

As it turned out, flying in the 1950s and 1960s was far more democratized than the 1930s and 1940s, where the majority of travelers flew business class and paid an upward of $2,500 for a seat (again, has much changed?). Granted, low-cost or budget airlines didn’t exist back then at all. So airline travel was purely for the affluent, or those with savings, as cost to fly was so inflated that one flight in 1955 from Chicago to Phoenix cost over $1,000, which was roughly one month’s income on a secretary’s salary.

Fly by Design

It carved out a new commercial niche for graphic designers, who used tourism as a gateway to create a retro graphic design movement encouraging commercial travel. “By the 1950s, flying was fun and fashionable,” said the Chicago Center’s owner, Richard Kasvin. “The airlines provided a means for an exciting escape on short notice or a long trip around the world. The ‘Mad Men’ designed posters for the airlines to tempt you into travel to many exciting destinations here in the U.S. and around the world.”

There is also the works of Montana-born designer E. McKnight Kauffer, who worked as one of Europe’s most prolific poster artists during the 1920s and 1930s. He returned to the U.S. to design government posters during the Second World War and worked for American Airlines, where he made a series of modernist style posters. He contributed airline’s retro graphic design by presenting the majestic architecture of cities like Washington D.C. and San Francisco in bold, minimal shapes.

A 1950s retro graphic design poster from the airline industry.

Among the designers and major contributors to this movement in retro graphic design are works by David Klein, a Texas-born designer who created dozens of travel posters during the 1950s and 1960s, promoting major and less-well known cities with flat, graphic posters. “Klein’s use of bright colors depicting famous landmarks in an abstract style defined the state of poster art of the period,” said Kasvin. “These works to this day define the excitement and enthusiasm of the early years of post-war air travel. They defined the jet set style and have become iconic.”

A 1950s retro graphic design poster from the airline industry.

A United (Now Retro Graphic Design) Front

At the time, United Airlines was a major player in the airline business, along with Pan American Airlines. Recognizing their influence, they dedicated efforts to secure some distinctive looks for their designed materials.

Austrian designer Joseph Binder moved to the U.S. in 1934 and worked for United Airlines, bringing his signature style with him. His work was different from other designers at the time for his European flair, his knowledge of art deco and modernist minimalism. “He applied reductive, compositional principles derived from Cubism, focusing on the reductive geometric forms, color contrasts and the psychological imprint of color,” said Kasvin.

A 1950s retro graphic design poster from the airline industry.
A 1950s retro graphic design poster from the airline industry.

From California, Stanley Walter Galli‘s was known also for being a painter, illustrator and printmaker, in addition to being a graphic designer. A recognized artist in his own right, Galli is remembered for his contribution to retro graphic design through his series of which included posters for Hawaii, Los Angeles and southern California as sun-drenched paradises.

A 1950s retro graphic design poster from the airline industry.
A 1950s retro graphic design poster from the airline industry.

Paper Airplanes

But airline posters were just the tip of the iceberg – at least on board. According to Guillaume de Syon, a history professor specializing in aviation history at Albright College, passengers in the 1950s were handed out postcards as they boarded a flight (which was another niche for designers of that time).

“It might have had a picture of the plane or the meal you were going to be served printed on it,” said de Syon. “The tradition at the time was that you would use your in-flight time to write people you knew on the ground, describing your flight. Once you ran out of postcards to write, there wasn’t much to do.”


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