Finding beauty in vintage airline maps

Readers are catapulted back to a simpler time of travel in Airline Maps, a new book from publisher Particular Books, which celebrates a century of cartographic design

Work by designers including Henry Beck – who created the London Underground map – and FHK Henrion is featured in the book, which includes adverts for the first ever passenger flights. It offers insight into some of the creative liberties of early maps which, according to author Mark Ovenden, took a “laissez-faire attitude to geographical accuracy”.

“Airline maps were completely different from what came before, such as navigational maps used by pilots or even railroad route maps for train riders,” he writes in the book’s intro. “Airline passengers did not need to know many specific details about their journey. All they were involved with were the airlines’ departure and arrival cities. To those with a fear of flying, perhaps the lack of detail was a clever psychological trick to entice them onto the fastest-moving machine ever invented.”

Top: A 1950s map by British Overseas Airways Corporation, publicising the Speedbirds for long haul flights; Above: 1947 BOAC poster by FHK Henrion
BOAC poster by Stan Krol, 1951
1935 poster, unknown designer

“Although flights are restricted to air corridors and airways, no passenger is going to quibble with the trajectories shown a map,” writes fellow author Maxwell J Roberts.

“These can be short and direct as the designer desires, any shape at all, but with one challenge: distances are often so great that the curvature of the Earth matters, and conveying speed and directness sometimes requires clear distortion of space or choice of projection.”

1935 Imperial Airways route map designed by Henry Beck
A pair of 1939 posters for Air France by airbrush illustrator Gerard Alexandre
An early 1950s Air Ceylon press advert with a simple route diagram

The book doesn’t just expose some striking pieces of creativity, it also reflects on changing attitudes towards air travel – and how design shaped that – as well as the ways developments in technology moved things forward. And for anyone without the time to delve too deeply into the history, Airline Maps also works simply as a visual record, with enough design nostalgia to earn it a place on the coffee table or in the studio bookshelf.

Airline Maps: A Century of Art and Design by Mark Ovenden and Maxwell Roberts is published by Particular Books, priced £16.99;