“It is perhaps best described as a useless but beautiful object,” says Simon Khachadourian, owner of London’s Pullman Gallery, as he points out the finer details of the strangely beguiling Sky Flash air-to-air missile sitting on its bespoke display stand in the vast exhibition space near Chelsea Bridge that he calls Pullman Studios.
The Sky Flash is a 3.6m, medium-range missile that was developed by British Aerospace Defence in 1976 for slinging beneath the wings of Phantom, Tornado and F-16 fighter jets – but this particular one, now safely decommissioned, threatens to do nothing more dangerous than spark a lively conversation.
Highly polished and undeniably attractive, it could almost have been made by Jeff Koons. If it had been, it would cost millions – but this one could be sitting in your drawing room for a mere £29,500 (just a tenth of what each one cost to make).
Although he now deals in the stuff, Khachadourian has been in love with such “aeronautica” for decades, starting at school with a collection of wartime brass aircraft identification models. But now his once rather niche interest is attracting people from around the world who also appreciate the decorative potential in everything from original aircraft parts to beautifully made display models. “Aeronautica attracts all sorts of buyers, but not necessarily those who have an involvement with aviation,” says Khachadourian, who has sold such items as a unique and magnificent sterling-silver scale model of a Lancaster Bomber commissioned from Garrard in 1987 by King Hussein of Jordan as a gift for his chauffeur, Joe Paine; and has in his current stock-list a £12,000 silver-gilt and rock-crystal replica of Concorde (in miniature, of course) that was presented to Queen Juliana of the Netherlands on the supersonic airliner’s inaugural flight.
“People are more likely to buy these objects simply because they appreciate the aesthetics and realise that they make really interesting features. The bigger pieces are especially well suited to large drawing rooms or loft apartments.”
Indeed, much ostensibly defunct aeronautica is now finding a new lease of life in some of the world’s most stylish interiors after being deftly converted for domestic use as attractive and often highly functional furniture. Auction house Christie’s recently sold a pair of occasional tables with calamander-wood tops set on 60cm-high steel missile tails (£2,375), together with a Rocket desk with legs made from similar, chrome-plated components (£4,000).
On a similar note, when Nick English arrives at his Henley-on-Thames office each day, he settles down behind the highly polished, aluminium tailplane of a 1950s Douglas Dakota that has been converted into a stylish desk. English, who founded the luxury aviator-watch brand Bremont together with his brother Giles, has been flying historic aircraft since he was a schoolboy and collecting aeronautica for almost as long.
“Giles and I started out by hoarding bits of old aircraft that we had owned, but then we realised they had decorative potential,” explains English. “Highly varnished wooden propellors with some history attached, for example, are truly beautiful pieces of art when you see them up close, and they look wonderful when displayed on a wall. Unfortunately, prices have increased dramatically since my brother picked one up for me at auction for £300 about 15 years ago. They now cost a few thousand apiece.”
Alan Hatchwell, owner of Hatchwell Antiques in London’s King’s Road, Chelsea, agrees with English’s sentiments. He has seen aircraft-related objects follow a jet-like trajectory during the decade in which he has been dealing in them. “We realised that, with a little bit of attention, many aircraft parts could actually be made into beautiful objects – but they were just being ignored,” explains Hatchwell. “We might take a radial aircraft engine, for example, and use it as a base for a coffee table (price on request) or mirror. Likewise, a propellor or the turbine blades of a Boeing 747. When you see something in a different context and redesigned, it becomes a new piece of art.”
Hatchwell has developed a network of contacts around the world from whom he sources components, which tend to arrive in the not-so-attractive state in which they were last used commercially. He then sets about the task of carefully removing paint and excess parts before, where appropriate, polishing the object to a high lustre.
“It can be a very time-consuming process,” he says. “An ejection seat, say, sells for around £9,000, but it takes at least 100 hours of work to turn it from a decommissioned object into something that is really attractive to look at.”
Andrew Angell, owner of Angell Antiques in north London, will even sell you a sizeable chunk of fuselage from a Douglas DC10, incorporating a pair of windows. After stripping back the paint and discreetly incorporating brackets, switches and electrical wiring, this piece of aeronautica becomes an attractive light that appears to be “floating” several inches off the wall.
“I originally started my business to deal in industrial furnishings,” says Angell, “but a friend who operates an aircraft scrapyard suggested I might be able to work with some of the parts he had been removing. It has proved successful, mainly among people who want something that is different to look at and is a talking point.”
Angell says his “fuselage lights”, which cost from £1,400 to £3,500, have proved popular among the celebrity set, including prominent figures from the music industry, although he won’t name names.
According to Richard Gauntlett, proprietor of London’s Gauntlett Gallery, it is the combination of “speed, style and technology” that makes aeronautical objects so appealing as interior decoration. “There is a whole range of items that just seem to be attractive to everyone, young or old,” he explains. “We recently sold a painting for £12,500 by the artist Conrad Leach depicting the Supermarine S5 aircraft that won the Schneider Trophy seaplane race in 1927. The Schneider Trophy races were extremely famous, but the buyer of the painting was only vaguely aware of them – he simply loved the image and everything it conveyed.
“Similarly, I created an entire aviation-themed study for a client in Gloucestershire who had no particular connection with flying at all. We put a beautiful old wooden propellor on one wall with framed black-and-white photographs of the aircraft it came from mounted between the blades.
“Another wall held a very large, 2.3m-long model of Concorde; there was a pair of pistons from a Rolls-Royce Merlin engine as bookends; and various small aircraft models dotted around the room, together with a Roy Nockolds sketch of a Spitfire and several framed Schneider Trophy programmes. The overall effect was wonderful,” says Gauntlett, who has recently converted a Merlin cylinder head into the base of an £8,000 coffee table.
Perhaps the most surprising pieces of aeronautica currently being afforded new cachet, however, are the compact and portable galley kitchens from which air hostesses serve drinks and meals. “These are proving remarkably popular and are actually incredibly versatile,” says Angell, who has been selling them for more than a year. “One particular customer has bought several that will be coated with aluminium and used to create an unusual, industrial-looking kitchen in her main home. Other people buy them to use as poolside bars.”
The idea has been taken a stage further by a German firm that buys both decommissioned and new airline drinks trolleys and converts them into everything from coffee bars to shoe racks – one version, priced at €27,800, even comes studded with 82,000 Swarovski crystals.
The brains behind Cologne-based Skypak is entrepreneur Peter Fischer, who has used his knack for design to restyle the ubiquitous trolleys and turn them into useful and aesthetically pleasing objects. “Our goal is to combine form and functionality by collaborating with a growing range of young designers who produce a constant stream of new ideas,” says Fischer.
“Each trolley can be given a unique ‘personality’, whether the item is to be a purely functional piece of lounge furniture, or something more eccentric, such as a mosaic-covered shoe cabinet (€11,800) or a 24ct-gold-leaf cocktail bar (€4,800). They are also excellent for storing refreshments for business meetings – and will certainly be a talking point afterwards.”
The trolleys have proved so popular that Skypak now converts new ones, too, often adding additional features as customers require, such as CD racks, document holders and shelves made from walnut or aluminium. Prices start from a reasonable €1,380 – after which the sky is, of course, the limit.