With summer holidays (hopefully) being on everyone’s agenda, it feels timely to unpack some material gathered during my dissertation research, which revealed fascinating narratives on the design and signage systems of airports of the 1970s. My dissertation investigated the introduction and development of corporate identity programme in France, the final case study of which was the French airline UTA (1971-1973), which allowed me to treat the stage when graphic consistency had become recognised as an effective tool for French companies and institutions.
Many reasons led to this situation in the 1970s, but a couple of these were capital for the recognition of the practice in the 1970s as argued in the paper. To begin with, graphic and industrial design then became recognised as fully-fledged professions in the private and public sectors, while, added to this, the period witnessed an increased use of design for collective purposes in France. In the realm of graphic design, the public sector indeed started to invest in large-scale signage systems while a series of exhibitions organised by public institutions promoted graphic design and typography as cohesive systems. In line with my dissertation’s topic, the most interesting examples of the latter were the exhibition of 1971 which showcased Swiss graphic, and that of 1973 which showcased the Dutch graphic designer Willem Sandberg’s work for the Stedelijk Museum’s signage system, both taking place at the Parisian Centre de Création Industrielle (CCI). As reflected in the Roissy-Charles-de-Gaulle airport’s signage system developed in that period, systemic use of graphics had thus by then fully entered the public space, and were grounded in foreign practices.
Major international airports had commissioned large-scale graphic systems in the 1960s. Commercial air transportation at that time indeed experienced deep changes in its infrastructures, and when jumbo jets entered the market, ‘the dam preventing the mass use of air transport for tourist purposes was […] finally broken’ as the historian Hasso Spode notes. The aircrafts indeed doubled in size and were comparable in cost to the earlier jet planes, thus allowed lowering the price of tickets.
An increasing number of French nationals started to travel worldwide for business purposes and holidays in this context. The French state had encouraged tourism in the immediate post-war period, and after extended paid holidays were granted after union campaigns in the 1950s the tourism sector expanded dramatically during the following decades. At a time when holidays were the cornerstone of what the sociologist Joffre Dumazedier and others have termed an emergent ‘leisure society’, charter flights and all-inclusive holidays became increasingly popular, and created a mobile and international community eager to access far-way destinations.
Returning to our case study, the signage system developed for the new airport of Roissy Charles-de-Gaulle arose from the encounter of two great minds in 1970. The project’s architect, Paul Andreu, indeed contacted that year the typographer Adrian Frutiger to develop a new typeface for the airport’s signage system. After the success of Frutiger’s Univers, Andreu believed that the right typeface would reflect the structure of his revolutionary building, conceived as a modular structure in order to handle the growing numbers of travellers. As shown above on the mock up (currently conserved at the CCI), the building was planned and is up until today indeed entirely circular, which allows the multiplication of departure gates, an enlarged surface to park and board aircrafts, as well as the shortening of the passengers’ distances within the terminal. Added to this, with the industry exploding, and in the climate of architectural experimentation for other airports, the circular structure also allowed expanding the airport in a near future by adding similar structures, which would only feed the organic appearance of the whole.
The Swiss typographer Frutiger was then based in Paris, and his typeface Univers had experienced a worldwide success since when it was developed in 1957. The latter has been described by many graphic design historians as embodying a radical Modernity through its economy of means and expression as well as being associated with political and national neutrality in the period. Commissioned by Andreu as a new typeface for the future airport, Frutiger developed a new typeface, Roissy, which was an adaptation of Univers, while keeping its sans serif body and New Typography character. The typeface, which since 1976 was renamed Frutiger for public use, was developed in order to answer imperatives of speed and distance as travellers faced the need to navigate in a complex environment- most often in a hurry. The English critic Reyner Banham in that period indeed referred to airports as ‘demented amoebas’, which, as one can imagine, posed a challenge to their management and designers, who collaborated to answer the sector’s new conditions. Thus as found in Frutiger’s typeface, the spacing and broad-based body contributed to the functioning of the infrastructure by facilitating the reading of words and numbers at distance and in crowded spaces. Its aim thus reflected that of Andreu’s architecture, and by intermingling with the space reflected its modular structure while similarly assisting the easy flow of passengers.
This close-knitted association of architecture and typography as such offers a fascinating dialogue between two design systems. As we have seen, aesthetics, logistics and financial reasons prompted the use of clarity, which as such favoured speed and a continuous flow. Added to this, the designs of a modular and sleek space and typeface reflected a time in which global communication had become vital for international platforms to position themselves on the world stage, let alone to function. Indeed for a country that like France experienced a slow recognition of industrial design, the commission and development of large and cohesive design systems reflected a change of beliefs towards the profession, as well as an effort to maintain the nation at the level of its neighbours.
__________________________ Volker Fischer, The Wings of the Crane: 50 years of Lufthansa Design, (Felbach: Edition Axel Menges, 2005), p.31; Editorial, UTA Entreprise, n°6, (1968), p.2.  Hasso Spode, ‘Let us fly you where the sun is’: Air travel and tourism in historical perspectives’, Airworld: Design and Architecture for Air Travel, exh. cat., (Weil am Rhein: Vitra Museum, 2004) p.32.  Gilles de Bure, ‘Les Années 70’, in: Design Français 1960-1990: Trois Décennies, pp.28-45, p.32.  Ellen Furlough, ‘Making Mass Vacations: Tourism and Consumer Culture in France, 1930s to 1970s’, in: Comparative Studies in Society and History Vol. 40, n°2, (1998), 247-286, (p.262).  Ibid.  Architectural Review, Vol. 132 (October 1962), 250-60.  Koos Basma, ‘On the search of the perfect airport’, Airworld: Design and Architecture for Air Travel, Vitra Museum, 2004 pp.36-64, (p.60); Philip Jodidio, Paul Andreu: Architect, (Basel: Birkhäuser, 2004), p.6.
Alastair Gordon, Naked Airport : A Cultural History of the World’s Most Revolutionary Structure, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004)
Volker Fischer, The Wings of the Crane: 50 years of Lufthansa Design, (Felbach: Edition Axel Menges, 2005)
Hasso Spode, ‘Let us fly you where the sun is’: Air travel and tourism in historical perspectives’, Airworld: Design and Architecture for Air Travel, exh. cat., (Weil am Rhein: Vitra Museum, 2004)
Tania studied both graphic design and fine arts in Switzerland before joining the V&A/RCA MA programme. She has since written on the relationship between craft and corporate identities by examining the Wiener Werkstätte’s visual identity and the marketing of Provencal ceramics. Her current research investigates the development of the first corporate identities in France, focusing on the encounter between design, company management and technology between 1950 and 1975.
© Tania Messell 2014. All Rights Reserved.