An Avant-Garde Map that Enticed Fearful Customers to Air Travel

When aviation took off in the early 20th century, safety was still shaky and the public needed some convincing to get them soaring among the clouds in the noisy metal contraptions. Imperial Airways based in the UK had almost yearly fatal crashes from when it started in 1924 to the mid-1930s when it brought on Hungarian artist László Moholy-Nagy to design enticing advertisements. Moholy-Nagy was based in London after fleeing Nazi Germany in 1935, and, looking to pick up some work to support his displaced life, instilled the commercial commission with his constructivist style.

His “Imperial Airways / Map of Empire & European Air Routes” (1936) is on display May 2 to 7 at Swann Galleries in New York as part of their Modernist Posters auction. While World War II would soon halt civilian commercial airlines in England, the time before, and after, the war was a sort of golden age for airline advertisements. Along with Moholy-Nagy, abstract artist Ben Nicholson and modernist John Piper would also work for airlines.

László Moholy-Nagy, “Imperial Airways / Map of Empire & European Air Routes” (detail) (1936) (click to enlarge)

You can explore Moholy-Nagy’s poster in high-resolution at the David Rumsey Map Collection. Overlaying a world map that highlighted the British Empire with air routes, Moholy-Nagy added a map of the frequency of each route inspired by the 1931 London Underground tube map by Harry Beck, with blue skies replacing the ocean. In that way, the poster makes air travel seem as approachable as stepping on the subway (itself a developing innovation). Moholy-Nagy also created some striking posters for London Transport before he left the country for Chicago in 1937, with huge Bauhaus-inspired letters and diagrams to simultaneously warn and introduce passengers to the new pneumatic doors.

Moholy-Nagy could get a little more surreal than his contemporaries in his advertising work; for example, this Imperial Airways brochure where the logo gapes from a giant eye. Around the same time, he reportedly did some window displays for Simpsons of Piccadilly that were so abstract with their layout of striped shirts and bowler hats that they unsettled the customers. Frank Pick, who headed the development of the London Underground’s visual identity, is cited as calling Moholy-Nagy “a gentleman with a modernistic tendency who produces pastiches of photographs of a surrealistic type, and I am not at all clear why we should fall for this. It is international, or at least continental. Let us leave the continent to pursue their own tricks.”

Despite the ambivalence, Moholy-Nagy did manage to embed some of the Eastern European avant-garde into advertising, the map a minor note perhaps in his greater legacy, but still a striking example of mid-century constructivism heralding a new age of air travel.