American Airlines

Charlotte von Hardenburgh

By the early 1970s the “Liebes Look” was pervasive across a range of mass-market products, including wallpapers, ceramic tiles, area rugs, and fabrics for various modes of transportation. [1] The studio designed textiles for planes, ships, and automobiles—partnering with Chrysler to create copper-flecked upholstery for the 1957 Plymouth Fury and collaborating with industrial designer Raymond Loewy (French-American, 1893–1986) to revive the interiors of the SS Lurline in its postwar transformation. Liebes also frequently collaborated with Henry Dreyfuss (American, 1904–1972) to create textiles for his modernist interiors, including the Persian Room of the Plaza Hotel and the United Nations Delegates Dining Room. One of their last projects together was the 1970 launch of the American Airlines 747 LuxuryLiner. Dreyfuss was the interior designer of this revolutionary aviation interior and commissioned Liebes to design upholstery for the airline seats. 

The 747 LuxuryLiner was three times the size and capacity of any jet airliner at the time and it was not only monumental to aviation and engineering, but also historic within the context of corporate branding (Fig. 1). [2] The renowned graphic designer Massimo Vignelli—who updated the New York City subway map in 1965—was in charge of American Airlines’s new graphic identity, although Dreyfuss is credited with adding the distinctive eagle to the sans serif logotype. [3] Amid the excitement about this new jumbo jet, photos of the sleek silver plane were everywhere; yet color documentation of the interior is scarce. However, one swatch of a rather patriotic red-and-blue gingham pattern, a color sketch by Dreyfuss, and a contemporaneous American Airlines brochure can be viewed in tandem to imagine the luxurious interior experience aboard this aircraft (Figs. 2 & 3). 

Liebes was innovative in her use of synthetic materials in her handwoven textiles, but she also pioneered the use of several new fibers that were developed in the postwar period for her commercial commissions. For example, the gingham sample is made of Nomex, developed by Dupont in 1967 as a lightweight, fireproof fiber. It was mainly used for aviation uniforms for the military, but Liebes also utilized it for her American Airlines upholstery designs. According to the American Craft Council’s files from Liebes’s 1970 Retrospective, the designer also used Dupont’s Nomex for another set of upholstery, Nomex handwoven in a twill weave, possibly for the first-class seats of the Luxury Liner. [4] Flight safety cards from this period show a nubby upholstery in off-white and red colorways (Fig 4). [5] Similarly, a promotional brochure from the Transportation Library of Northwestern University depicts airline seats that have a particularly tweed-like texture reminiscent of the Liebes look (Fig. 5). [6] 

This research was made possible with major support from the Smithsonian American Women’s History Initiative. Thank you to the Henry Dreyfuss Archive of Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum and from the National Museum of American History, and the Transportation Library of Northwestern University for providing assets within this article.


[1] Monica Penick, “The Liebes Look: Better and Better for Less and Less,” in A Dark, A Light, A Bright: The Designs of Dorothy Liebes, eds. Susan Brown and Alexa Griffith Winton (New York: Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum; New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2023), 184.

[2] Chokshi, Niraj, Meron Tekie Menghistab, Jovelle Tamayo, and Lindsey Wasson. “The Last Boeing 747 Leaves the Factory.” The New York Times, January 31, 2023.

[3] “On Board with Design.” On Board With Design. Accessed June 22, 2023.  

[4] Beth Goodrich, Librarian at American Craft Council, conversation with the author, February 23, 2021. 

[5] Flight safety cards from the digital archive of Kevin Cleynhens.

[6] Brochure provided by Rachel Cole of the Transportation Library of Northwestern University.

a cream brochure with two large capital letter As, one red and one blue, with a blue eagle logo sandwiched between the two As

Fig. 1 Massimo Vignelli’s 1967 redesign, shown here, was initially simply two As in the Helvetica typeface, one red and one blue. The airline insisted on the inclusion of the eagle, which had become a central part of the company’s identity; pilots even threatened to strike over the issue. But Vignelli refused, believing that an abstracted eagle design was undignified, and the airline eventually had the office of Henry Dreyfuss add it to Vignelli’s AA. American Airlines Annual Report, 1969. Transportation Library Annual Report Collection, Northwestern University. Courtesy Northwestern University Transportation Library.

swatch of a red and blue checkered fabric

Fig. 2 Sample for American Airlines 747 coach class seating upholstery, circa 1970; Designed by Dorothy Liebes; DuPont Nomex nylon; National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution, TE15559.000

an illustration of rows of passenger seats on an airplane. one row has all blue-upholstered seats and the other row behind it has red and blue checkered upholstery

Fig. 3 Sketch for American Airlines 747 coach class seating, circa 1970; Interior design by Henry Dreyfuss (American, 1904–1972); Upholstery designed by Dorothy Liebes; Henry Dreyfuss Archive, Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum

a grid of images showing instructions for flight safety procedures. the passengers in the images are sitting in red and cream upholstered seats.

Fig. 4 American Airlines 747 Luxury Liner Flight Safety Card, 1969; Courtesy of Kevin Cleynhens

a brochure showing the illustration of a plane interior with passengers sitting in red seats and cream-colored seats. one passenger is sitting in a seat with red and blue checked upholstery.

Fig. 5 Interior spread of “Presenting the American Dream” American Airlines, DC-10 Luxury Liner booklet, 1970; Courtesy Northwestern University Transportation Library

Charlotte von Hardenburgh

Charlotte von Hardenburgh is the American Women’s History Initiative Research Fellow at Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum. Her research contributes to the exhibition and publication A Dark, A Light, A Bright: The Designs of Dorothy Liebes. In addition to conducting her research and curatorial work, von Hardenburgh teaches undergraduate courses at Parsons School of Design focused on modern design history and typography. She is currently based in New York City.