As a firm believer in form follows function, I have to say, airplanes are some beautiful engineering. That’s why I was excited to check out MotoArt with Ben from Atlas Obscura last Saturday. Located right by LAX airport, this company takes old airplane parts and turns them into high-end art and furniture pieces. I had not heard of them before the tour, but was surprised to find they have had a lot of publicity over their storied history — they’ve been covered in numerous magazines, starting with a spread in Maxim and culminating with a show on Discovery Channel called Wing Nuts!
Dave, one of the co-owners and co-founders, led the tour. He and his partner Donovan started as sign guys working mostly for the theme parks in the area. One day, their scrap metal guy happened to have an old airplane propeller in his truck, and Donovan bought it for $100, polished it to a mirror finish, and sold it as a freestanding sculpture for $1,000. Just like that, the seed was planted. After making more propeller sculptures and selling them at a show for $6,000-$10,000 each, the two decided to make this their full-time job.
They have had some interesting ups and downs along the way. It used to be that when a military airplane was decommissioned, a mini-boneyard would form around it. The scrappers would tear the airplane apart, and the government would buy back some of the still functional parts, and then the rest were auctioned off to private parties. However, Iran was caught trying to buy parts from an F-16, and the government decided that national security demands that anything remotely military could no longer be sold off. There are a couple of flaws in the logic, though. First, anything previously decommissioned and junked is still OK to be resold. Second, we sell these same airplanes to our allies around the world, and there are no restrictions on how they deal with their decommissioned airplanes. In short, it was security theater that just made it more difficult for MotoArt to get their hands on supplies for new pieces. That said, MotoArt did take out a big loan and buy up everything military that they could, and they still have contacts and leads to junkyards with military parts sitting around. But they also greatly expanded their use of commercial airplane parts, which are unrestricted.
Here are a couple of my favorite pieces from the tour:
First is the B-25 Bomber Desk, from the airplanes perhaps most famous for the Doolittle Raid of Tokyo during World War II. The fabric skin was peeled off to expose the aluminum frame, which was polished and in some cases powder coated different colors. Dave told us that since they got the parts as-is, some of these desk have original bullet holes in them still.
The other is the C-119 Flying Boxcar Paratrooper Door Coffee Table. While there is not an iconic mission that these airplanes were used on, the door and the desk are quite beautiful.
It is a shame I could not even afford a small end table from MotoArt. Dave joked that even as the owner of the business, he has trouble affording his own products — a very nice problem to have. Next time you are by LAX with some time to kill, think about swinging down to El Segundo and checking this place out.