Air Force One looks the way it does because President John F. Kennedy sat on the floor of the Oval Office with an industrial designer, scissors, paper and crayons.
It was May 1962, and the Air Force had ordered a Boeing C-137 Stratoliner for the president. The airplane could fly anywhere in the world on a half-hour notice. It carried as many as eight crew members and 40 passengers, and had a range of 6,000 miles.
The Air Force had designed a red-and-fold color scheme for the plane, a modified long-range Boeing 707.
Raymond Loewy, the world’s preeminent industrial designer, viewed the Air Force One design as hideous.
I was unimpressed by the gaudy red exterior markings and … the amateurish graphics of Air Force One, he said.
Loewy owned the largest design firm in New York. He had designed Lucky Strike cigarettes, Studebaker cars, Coca-Cola bottle and Electrolux refrigerators. The press called him The Man Who Streamlined America.
First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy, with her unerring sense of style, lobbied the president to hire the French-born Loewy.
Loewy met with the president twice. The first time, he and Kennedy sat on the floor of the Oval Office drawing with crayons and cutting up paper to come up with a livery for Air Force One.
Then Loewy visited the National Archives to examine historic documents. He was struck by the first printed copy of the Declaration of Independence; it had the new country’s name set widely spaced in capital letters in a typeface known as Caslon.
Kennedy had already ordered the Air Force to remove the military lettering in favor of the simple United States of America. And he told Loewy he liked blue.
Loewy chose two blues: slate and cyan. He left the underside of the fuselage silver and added the presidential seal near the nose, a large American flag to the tail, and the words “United States of America” in capital letters using the Caslon typeface.
Jackie Kennedy Blue
The First Lady had a hand in designing the interior of the plane. She made sure the president had his own entrance, a customized bed, a stateroom, a conference room, glassware from Tiffany’s and a pale blue rug with an American eagle in the center of an oval with 13 stars,
Air Force One to this day carries the Loewy design. In 1964, Loewy designed the memorial stamp commemorating John F. Kennedy.
In 2018, President Donald Trump said he wanted to do away with ‘Jackie Kennedy blue‘ and have Air Force One painted in bolder colors.
Trump then continued his campaign to redesign the airplane. In June 2019, he showed off a new model of the airplane in the Oval Office. Critics said the paint job resembled that of his private jet. Then the House passed an amendment requiring the president to get congressional permission to make changes “relating to aircraft paint scheme, interiors, and livery.”
Read more about style in the 1960s here. This story was updated in 2020.