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Art of a Logo

THERE’S NOT MUCH going on this week. I suppose we could be talking about the new — and quite maddeningly vague — security rules affecting passengers arriving in the U.S. from overseas, but there’s little to be said that hasn’t been said a hundred times in these pages. If you feel that handing out questionnaires to departing passengers is a legitimate means of thwarting terrorists, and a useful way of spending resources, well good luck to you.

But the heck with that. Instead of some frustrating rant about security, let’s get nostalgic and return to one of my perennial favorite subjects: airline logos.

What brings me to this topic yet again is Walter Isaacson’s splashy new book out about the life and work of Leonardo da Vinci, history’s most prolific artist-thinker-tinkerer. If that strikes you as the most baffling non-sequitir you’ve ever heard, then you’re too young to remember the old, 1970s-era livery of All Nippon Airways, which looked like this…

It’s without irony that the logo of All Nippon depicted Leonardo’s 16th century “helicopter” design — a corkscrewing flying machine that, while an impressive statement of the artist’s vision and intellect, could never have gotten off the ground.

That’s a hard sentiment to pin down. Were they just being cheeky, or was it something deeply respectful and reflective — a logo that symbolized four-hundred years worth of dream and ambition, a culmination of the journey from theoretical flying machine to the Lockheed L-1011? Whatever it was, it was the sort of incredibly cool logo that no airline in 2017 would ever consider using. It’s too intense, too esoteric, too meaningful in an age where corporate identity is sought not through meaning or concept, but through garish colors and swoopy things.

Similarly, perhaps my all-time favorite tail design was the one used by British Airways around that same period. The tail was this one, seen here on a 747…

As the kids today would say, that tail is dope. I’m not sure there’s ever been a better one. It’s so rakish, streamlined, and the angles so perfectly complement the angles of the airplane itself. And there’s something so undefinably British about it. Indeed, if it seems there’s something Union Jack-ish about it, that’s because the design is lifted directly from the banner. Look closely at the flag…

Do you see it?

Okay now scroll down.

How’s that for clever?

No, they don’t do airline liveries like they used to. Not for the most part, anyway. I’m a sucker for those that at least make an effort to incorporate some sort of cultural or historical message, and fortunately there are still a few out there. Aeromexico’s Aztec-inspired “Eagle Knight,” for instance, is a great example, and JAL’s tsurumaru crane is the prettiest thing in the sky. EgyptAir’s falcon-headed Horus is maybe the ugliest thing in the sky, but at least it means something.

The best ones, maybe, are the ones where you need The Google to help you out. I’m thinking especially of Iran Air’s peculiar logo. Inspired by the character of Homa, a kind of bird-horse-cow griffin carved on the columns at the ancient Persian site of Persepolis, the symbol was designed 1961 by a 22 year-old Iranian art student named Edward Zohrabian, and has been used ever since. How many companies have stuck with the same logo for 56 years?

Iran Air is in the midst of transition, and it’s just a matter of time, I worry, before this enduring mark is dustbinned for some stupid swoosh. Like Leonardo’s copter on the tail at ANA, it’s probably too old-fashioned, if not outright perplexing, by today’s standards. It’s also vaguely fetal and creepy-looking, I agree. But here’s hoping they keep it.

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