fb-pixel Skip to main content

Iconic posters from a time when flight and art made magic

A modestly wrapped native woman wearing a garland of flowers watches a majestic seaplane settle onto a lagoon framed by lush vegetation under palm trees and a clear blue sky and against a backdrop of dramatic mountains.

The familiar 1940 image by the poster artist Paul George Lawler still is powerful enough to make a viewer long for a visit to the South Pacific. It did then, too, when the trip to the Hawaiian Islands it was advertising took a much less appealing 17 hours from San Francisco in an unpressurized propeller plane.

The connection between travel and iconic art like this is back in focus with the 90th anniversary this year of the founding of Pan Am, the company synonymous with not only aviation at its most glamorous, but with enduring design that has another crucial value: as a reminder of the exotic allure of travel people take for granted now.

“There was not the same degree of knowledge regarding the destinations that’s available to everyone today,” said Matthias Hühne, the author of a lavish new book devoted to this called “Pan Am: History, Design & Identity.” “These posters were often done by people who had not necessarily even been to the destinations themselves, so they had to rely on their own imaginations. That’s why they come across as these fantasy worlds, because to some extent they were.”


How high quality is graphic design about travel? The premium edition of Hühne’s 432-page book, with “Pan Am” superimposed over a blue-and-white globe in the familiar jet-age logo on the cover, goes for $900 in a handcrafted collector’s case and with additional images on heavy stock paper made in Italy. (The more pedestrian version, almost as luxurious, costs $70.) And some of those vintage travel posters themselves sell for as much as $20,000 apiece at Boston’s International Poster Gallery, which, among other works, has an original of that poster Lawler created for Pan Am.


Travel art “has become a major area of collecting,” said Jim Lapides, owner of the poster gallery, which furnished some of the images for Hühne’s book.

That’s in part because it wistfully evokes a time when travel was mysterious and privileged, Lapides said, beginning with the advent of the Orient Express — which coincided with the dawn of the stylish advertising poster.

“That sort of thing had to be promoted, and the poster was colorful and practical,” Lapides said. “It could be put right on the platform.”

And not only to advertise train travel, but also ocean voyages and, later, flight, and the destinations to which these modes of transportation led, depicted in art nouveau at the end of the 19th century and art deco, midcentury modern, streamlined, and machine-age style in the first half of the 20th. The idea was to emphasize the beauty and power of trains, ships, and planes — and assure their comfort and safety at a time when those weren’t necessarily a sure bet.

In a crowded world of choices for a traveler, Lapides said, “You had to get someone’s attention first. How did you do that? With art.”

It’s this high level of design that helps explain the enduring, almost cult-like nostalgia for Pan Am, a quarter of a century after it collapsed in 1991. Hühne, a Harvard grad and art collector who now lives in Berlin, remembers in almost spiritual tones boarding a Pan Am 747 as a boy for his first flight to the United States.


The artwork “really set a tone for the exotic and the faraway,” said Elizabeth Resnick, a professor of communication design at the Massachusetts College of Art and Design. After all, she said, “What do you put up on your walls, besides pictures of your loved ones? You put up pictures of places where you’ve traveled, or aspire to go. It’s really lovely to meditate on.”

In the heyday of luxury trains, ocean liners, grand hotels, and Pan Am, few people could do more than meditate about this. Travel was for the rich, a premium experience befitting its high cost. And the advertising that promoted it was often more idealized than real.

“They targeted a very high-end, elite sort of customer,” says Hühne. “You really had to have a lot of money to travel back then. So they got the best designers.”

That changed when being somewhere became more of a selling point than getting somewhere. “It used to be that the experience of travel was special. The contrast that we face now is that the notion of travel is special,” said John Marshall, the Boston-based chief strategy and innovation officer at the creative consultancy Lippincott, whose clients have included Delta and Southwest.

Slowly, however, travel brands have rediscovered high design. The Disney Cruise Line ships are painted to suggest grand ocean liners. Virgin planes are decorated with an image of a woman, her scarf (and, occasionally, a British Union Jack) billowing behind her.


“People really value beauty and aesthetics, so we’re seeing that happen in the airline business again,” said Marshall. “There’s a renewed effort to make the experience special. It’s a modern-day version of that romance. People are going to try to pull something from the past interpreted in a modern context — the classic ocean liner romantic or a beautiful, romantic plane.”

After all, Lapides says, “Our world is full of experiences that are mundane. And this is a part of life that is appealing to all of us.”

Jon Marcus can be reached at jonmarcusboston@gmail.com.