Monday, August 4, 2008

Aside from the novelty of flying into space, the best thing to come out of the recent debut of Virgin Galactic's "White Knight Two" mothership is the select use of graphics decorating the plane's fuselage and engine. Aeronautics and graphic design seem to have an interesting partnership, perhaps due to the industry's strategic image-making of a technologically forward, modern, sterile and record-breaking method of conveyance. Perhaps Le Corbusier is one of the first to indicate this trend in contrast to that of other industries, depicting airplanes, steamships and massive machinery set against a backdrop of a building industry still dragging its heels through nostaligic, historicist mud. Ironically, the imagery generated by the classical motifs of architecture is described as lending a "safeness" to its inhabitants and visitors, all of whom are dutifully sheltered by the persistence of iconography and orders over time (Doric for solidity, Ionic for whimsy and grace, and Corinthian for supremacy); and yet, the same security is ensured by the state-of-the-art in the shelter provided by field of engineering. As the argument goes, would you want to buy a Ferrari if it looked like a Model T? Perhaps only as a collector's item. And would you buy a Volvo if it used the same roll-cage as a Model T? For the safety of my family, no.

Returning to the White Knight Two, it is interesting to note that its use of decorative graphics are somewhat unique in the lineage of aeronautical ornament in that it seems to conflate advancement with nostalgia, and wisely so, in such a way that grounds its very modern aspiration (being the first passenger vehicle to go into space) with our contemporary notions of air travel. Simply put, its graphics use the history of aeronautics to make its radical modernity seem plausible. Perhaps this indicates that the image of the most modern method of transport (ignoring the Concorde) has its limits of representation. Like the building industry, it too needs a safety blanket. And it's possible that I've become a sucker for nostalgia, but I find the balance they maintain to be oddly beautiful.

Take the "DNA of Flight" graphic, which charts the evolution of aeronautics from early flying "wing" machines (essentially, strapped-on bat wings), to the Wright brothers, to war planes, jet craft, the Lunar Module and now the White Knight. Ok, I get it, evolution. But, wait, this is not normal. Outside of aviation enthusiasm, has ever such a direct and intentional reference history been attached to a "modern" invention, let alone one of the most expensive and sophisticated aeronautic machines ever built? Something is amiss.

Next, take also the masthead graphic depicting a woman, very reminiscent of WWII aircraft nose-art. She is young, oddly erotic, and definitely of the airbrush generation (although I smell many an Adobe filter). Oddly enough, she is a depiction of none other than Richard Branson's mother (his mother!), Eve, after whom the aircraft is named. And she leads us into space. History, in the guise of Eve Branson, leads us into space. A tried and true, safe and tested (by mom?) technology leads us into space. We can forget plane crashes and space shuttles exploding upon re-entry. Our minds skip over the Challenger.

Instead, we think of war boys, Kitty Hawk and da Vinci. And finally, these graphics start to make some sense. Because, let's be honest, if your market niche is the guy that blows $200K on six minutes of weightlessness, 62 miles into orbit (roughly half that of NASA's Space Shuttle Orbiter), the last thing you want him thinking about is a tragedy. Graphics have always been a tool of investment, and here it's the same story. What we might appreciate as graphic designers and architects in the White Knight's beautiful decoration is, in this very high-end market, simply a marketing device.

But does this stop me from liking them? No. Ad does it stop me from telling you that the Shuttle Orbiter's maximum capable sped is 17,321 mph? No. And that's really fast.

Some other fun images:


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