A Brief History of Airline Passenger Seats

John H. Hill shares the aesthetic behind one of San Francisco Airport Museum’s exhibitions.

(Todd Lappin)
Air & Space Magazine

(Continued from page 1)

Hill: The earliest three, two of wicker and the one bent-wood Boeing, have a general appearance one could call “quaint.” The wicker connotes simpler times. The Boeing seat, though, is actually highly finished, as the bent-wood joinery is laborious and very well executed and the nickel-chrome hardware is fairly advanced.

The Alcoa seat has a wonderful Machine Age look. The tubing and corner braces evoke the aluminum framework of an airship. With the DC-3 seat, the aluminum frame is hidden and the sides are covered with a synthetic panels whose shell-like patterns hint at Art Deco.

The Constellation seat is all about foam cushioning, as the overstuffed chair has now been introduced to air travel, along with some modest integrated functions and controls, including built-in armrest ashtrays and recline toggles. The beige top and sides of the seat and back upholstery complement the armrest coverings and sides while setting off the gold fabric insert. These colors were part of an integrated cabin interior design in which even the cabin crew uniforms, such as Oleg Cassini’s fashions for TWA air hostesses, were coordinated.

Aesthetics and color psychology became increasingly important design elements. By the time we get to the widebody Jet Age, cool navy-colored leather coverings and contrasting blue patterned fabrics are appearing. Blue is known to cause the body to produce calming chemicals and is associated with the emotions of loyalty.

In the 1993 Weber first class seat, form closely follows function and, other than its color as a mood modulator, its aesthetic appeal is more closely tied to tactile stimuli. The array of controls and personal electronics puts the passenger in a seat that functions as a mechanical exoskeleton, physically adjusting your position for you while serving as a bedroom, dining room, office, and entertainment center all rolled into one. No longer static furniture, the airline passenger seat has become a system designed to anticipate a nearly limitless range of human factors and cultural needs.

For more information about the “Take Your Seats” exhibit at San Francisco International Airport, go to www.sfoarts.org/exhibits/k1/k1-current.html or call (650) 821-6700.

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