When the current Air Force One descends from the sky on a presidential visit, those who witness the landing often are moved by the grace and power of the jet as it ferries the president to diplomatic visits, crisis spots or, yes, campaign stops.
More than anything, such reverential reactions are a tribute to the understated design of the aircraft. The color scheme of classic white and aquamarine blue is bisected by a sweeping royal blue “speed line” toward the tail. Air Force One’s design, with confidence and timeless beauty, reflects the power of the leader of the free world.
Air Force One was conceived in 1962 by Raymond Loewy, the self-styled “father of industrial design,” who changed the appearance of America’s consumer marketplace from 1928 to the 1970s with his work creating the Greyhound Scenicruiser bus, streamlined locomotives and Studebaker cars and the logos for Shell and Exxon.
Called upon to improve the design of the presidential plane by John F Kennedy and Jacqueline Kennedy, the designer immediately booked a flight to Washington.
Added to this hallowed history is President Donald Trump, a man whose relationship to understatement ends with his bulk-concealing black overcoat, with a changed design for Air Force One that’s included in the Department of Defense budget for 2021. The new look effectively communicates the power of the president’s massive ego, but little else.
Trump, who explained he wanted Air Force One to “look more American,” has come up with a design that looks less like an emblem of greatness than a US Postal Service truck with wings.
The proposed Air Force One design, supposedly created by Trump himself, uses the iconic colors of the American flag to create a billboard of sorts that is about as subtle as Evel Knievel’s All-American leather jumpsuit. The top of the fuselage will be all white, with a red strip setting off the royal blue covering the belly of the aircraft and its engines.
Even a cursory glance at the ersatz patriotism embodied in this creatively impotent prototype calls up images not of subtle and effective American power but, rather, cheap, gaudy flag designs on motorcycle helmets, swimwear and Apollo Creed’s ring wardrobe.
It’s easy to surmise where Trump received his design inspiration. He, like Knievel and Elvis, has always preferred the gaudy over muted elegance. One visit to Trump Tower, or any Trump endeavor, will reveal design schemes dripping with more gold than Tutankhamun, or at least Mr T.
Sharp-eyed observers of the new look also can see another source of Trumpian design inspiration – his own Trump Force One, the Boeing 757 Trump used as his flying throne room preceding and during his 2016 election campaign. The design uses a dark shade to top the fuselage, with red stripes belting the white belly of the aircraft. All these design motifs in Trump’s red-white-and-blue re-do add up to a final image that says not “America is here,” but “Hey, your package has arrived!”
Loewy’s first ideas for the plane were predominantly red, but Kennedy saw hints of imperialism (not to mention Sovietism) in these early looks. According to the 1967 notes in Loewy’s archive, the designer came to the White House with four graphic proposals and five lettering ideas. Kennedy made the decision to make the color pattern blue. In his book Industrial Design, Loewy, who was no stranger to self-aggrandizement, described himself and the president sprawled on the floor working on the design.
Loewy’s final creation retained the white top section but substituted sweeping shades of blue, including the aquamarine that covered the lower nose section and the cowling on the engines. Loewy substituted “United States of America” on the fuselage and placed a flag on the tail section. The typeface for the fuselage lettering supposedly was inspired by the type used in the heading of the Declaration of Independence. “United States of America” was set in widely spaced Caslon typeface.
What Trump and his enablers forget and what designer Loewy preached is that image is everything. The modernistic swoops and curves of the Loewy Air Force One design suggest diplomacy and cooperation. The ultramarine blue used in the lower parts of the plane is the color of diplomacy, peaceful reflection and reverie. It’s no accident that the United Nations uses the same color.
Loewy famously said the “most beautiful curve in the world is the sales curve,” but it’s a good bet that the public won’t buy the “new and improved” Air Force One.
What has always made America great is its discretion and diplomacy in wielding great power. Trump’s new design for America’s plane may shout “America First!” but real power lies in not having to say anything at all.