The look of today’s presidential plane originated with a quiet collaboration between President John F. Kennedy and Raymond Loewy, who was perhaps the most accomplished commercial image and design expert of the post-World War II era.
The next time you see an image of Air Force One taking off, think Coca-Cola and Lucky Strikes. The look of today’s presidential plane, emblazoned with “United States of America” on the blue-and-white fuselage, originated with a quiet collaboration between President John F. Kennedy and Raymond Loewy, who was perhaps the most accomplished commercial image and design expert of the post-World War II era.
When the first jet, a Boeing 707, was added to the presidential fleet in 1959, Dwight D. Eisenhower was content to let the nose and tail be painted with the Air Force’s easily visible “international orange” and the sides with the block-lettered label of an obscure bureaucracy: Military Air Transport Service.
But his successor, Kennedy, and Kennedy’s wife, Jacqueline, were far more attuned to how symbols could enhance a leader’s image — what might now be called his “brand.” When Kennedy first ran for Congress in 1946, his financier father, Joseph, said, “We’re going to sell Jack like soap flakes.”
Air Force One’s Look
• Why it’s blue: John F. Kennedy chose a red-and-gold design but asked designer Raymond Loewy to render it blue, his favorite color.
• Font fact: Kennedy chose the Caslon typeface for the legend “United States of America” because it resembles the one used in the heading of the Declaration of Independence.
As a college student, Jackie Kennedy had once drolly written that her life’s ambition was to be “a sort of overall art director of the 20th century.” Operating out of this aesthetic instinct, her interest in history and her desire to help her husband (who had been elected by a tiny popular-vote margin) at a time of almost unrelenting Cold War crisis, she famously restored the White House with the ambition of improving how the American presidency was presented to the world.
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To both Kennedys, Eisenhower’s drab, military-looking plane was a missed opportunity. They started by having its fuselage repainted with the words “United States of America.”
In March 1962, Loewy, who had a house in Palm Springs, Calif., saw the plane landing at the airport there. That evening, he told his friend Gen. Godfrey McHugh, Kennedy’s Air Force aide, that the aircraft, with its “rather gaudy” orange graphics, looked “terrible.”
McHugh explained that an enlisted man of little experience was responsible for the design. He added that a new Air Force One was being constructed. Loewy offered to make some suggestions, without taking a fee, on how the new plane could be made more distinguished.
Born in France in 1893, Loewy had migrated to New York after serving in World War I. While building his design business, he made his mark on the Lucky Strikes package (changing its color from green to white), the 1940s Lincoln Continental, the Coca-Cola bottle, dispensers and vending machines, the Greyhound Scenicruiser and the Pennsylvania Railroad locomotive. (Later he created logos for Exxon, Shell and the U.S. Postal Service.)
By Loewy’s account, he visited the White House a few months after his conversation with McHugh. After the designer laid out some sketches on armchairs against a wall, Kennedy chose one that featured a red-and-gold design but asked for it to be rendered in blue, which he said was his favorite color.
Loewy recalled that Kennedy also chose the Caslon typeface — which resembles the one used in the heading of the Declaration of Independence — that was used for the legend “United States of America.”
During their meetings, Kennedy also asked Loewy to consider how the federal government’s visual imagery could be improved, and Loewy’s firm was retained for a feasibility study, which led to the orange stripe used by the U.S. Coast Guard.
The new Air Force One entered service in fall 1962. Its color scheme and graphics proved to be timeless, and they survive today on President Obama’s Boeing 747s, combining sky blue with what Loewy called “a luminous ultramarine blue,” and having an American flag on the tail and a presidential seal on each side, near the nose.
The Kennedys were anxious about charges of commercialism, so Loewy — normally no shrinking violet — remained quiet about his role in the plane’s transformation, for a while.
Breaking his silence in 1967, he told United Press International about his involvement, adding that the president had “loved that aircraft. It was his baby.”
Jacqueline Kennedy had drawn the line at letting the plane’s interior (designed with Loewy’s help) be photographed for publication, out of worry that the staterooms looked too much like those of a rich tycoon’s private plane. The first time most Americans got a look at Air Force One’s interior was the afternoon of Nov. 22, 1963, after her husband’s assassination, when Lyndon B. Johnson, in one of the most famous images of the century, was photographed taking the presidential oath there at her side.