Turning the metallic bones of retired aircraft into high-concept ‘airplane furniture’ has made an uncommon success story of El Segundo’s Moto Art
Story and photos by Pat Reynolds
Under the LAX flight path, a warehouse workshop in El Segundo is turning the metallic bones of retired aircraft into functional works of art.
The industrial craftsmen of MotoArt cut, weld, sand and polish discarded airplane parts to create what they call “airplane furniture” — conference tables made from the wings of B-52 bombers, bathroom sinks from landing gear, bed frames made from the engine cowlings of a 747, F-4 ejection seat barstools, DC-9 wing flap desks, fuselage book shelves, glass-topped tables from jet engines.
Each handmade piece resembles an art installation, which is where MotoArt began. When co-founders Dave Hall and Donovan Fell met in 2001, Fell was creating sculptures made from airplane propellers and selling them at art shows. He sanded and polished these long, stainless steel props to a mirror-like finish before mounting them vertically on a base. Through that process, these discarded propellers took on another quality and, like good art does, made a statement.
By day, Hall was a marketing guy and Fell was a project manager for a high-end sign company. Hall was taken by the sculptures and hatched a small side business with Fell. Then one day they added a circular piece of glass to the area where the base joined the propeller, and that changed everything. This was no longer “propeller art.” It was functional. It forged a link between commerce and art. They called it the “martini table,” and from there MotoArt was born.
“After that, I’ll never forget, we were sitting there having breakfast in downtown LA scribbling on napkins — all the different things we could come up with based on old airplane parts,” said Hall, 47. “Neither of us knew anything about where to get the parts or anything like that. We literally just started knocking on doors. People thought we were crazy.”
Hall had the martini table and two other concepts professionally photographed and sent the pictures to Maxim magazine, which had a section for such unique creations. To his surprise, he got a call back: Did they have anything else? Hall, of course, said yes, and the two fledgling entrepreneurs got to work in Hall’s garage for what became a two-page spread.
“Don and I thought we were going to be millionaires,” Hall said smiling. “It was a big break.”
In reality, the popular men’s magazine’s core demographic skewed young, and while readers may have appreciated the work, direct sales for products costing thousands of dollars did not directly manifest. But soon other magazines began featuring the work and the small company began to grow wings.
In 2004, everything changed again. Fell had seen an episode of the reality show “Orange County Choppers,” and thought MotoArt could do one better. With the help of some industry contacts, he was soon talking to the Discovery Channel and “Wing Nuts” was born.
Even though they call it reality TV, a program’s subjects are cast into character roles in order to move a story forward. Fell, of course, was the artist; Hall, the moneyman. Then Discovery producers added a third character — Tim Roberts, the wild card — who brought additional energy, humor and conflict into the mix.
The show’s first eight-episode season succeeded on the hook of a tension between art and commerce, with the team battling to keep the business alive while staying true to its creative roots. A healthy dose of arguing, chiding, yelling and sighing were edited in for good measure.
“We were on top of the world — the new fall show on the Discovery Channel, prime time,” Hall said. “We had ratings and fans. There were fan clubs in different states.”
The TV show, as Hall had intended, gave MotoArt an enormous opportunity to showcase their eclectic products to a huge audience. They were already signed on for a second season when tragedy struck: Tim Roberts, in many ways the heart and soul of the show, died suddenly at age 39.
The show was cancelled. MotoArt was again facing hard times.
“The phone literally stopped ringing overnight,” Hall said.
The program’s end “almost made us look like we went out of business,” Hall recalled. “In the show, we were always desperate. Are we going to make payroll or whatever? So viewers are hanging onto the edge of their seats wondering ‘Are these guys going to make it?’ Art versus commerce, you know? But what the program didn’t show was we were actually starting to succeed.”
But MotoArt weathered the turbulence and expanded its catalogue. It matured and found its strengths, including a bread-and-butter line of coffee tables.
For larger items and furniture sets, MotoArt boasts an impressive client list: Microsoft, Boeing, Red Bull, Saks Fifth Avenue and GE among them.
And Hollywood’s come calling again. MotoArt pieces are featured in the “Magic Mike” and “Magic Mike XXL” movies as creations that protagonist Channing Tatum is trying to start a business selling.
These days, Hall and Fell have a reliable network of desert airplane boneyards and other suppliers on one end, a steady stream of customers on another.
And the thrill of creation is very much still alive.
As Fell put it in the pilot episode of “Wing Nuts”: “When we go to a junkyard or crisscross the country looking for this stuff and when we do discover a pile of it, it’s like meeting a beautiful woman. It’s terribly exciting — my heart starts to pound. I get a little light-headed sometimes.”