Rosario Gallina and Tiziano Rutilo will not have been the first people to wonder what happens to airplanes once they are no longer fit to fly. But they are definitely among the first to turn that curiosity into a business venture. Earlier this year, Gallina and Rutilo launched the Brussels-based Relicta Design, a company that seeks out old, decommissioned aircraft parts and converts them into one-off pieces of furniture.
"Travelling has always been our passion. We've spent literally thousand of hours in the air with those airplanes and we were wondering what happens to them when they become obsolete," explains Gallina.
"Once, in California, we had the opportunity to visit an airplane cemetery and we thought this would be a wonderful way to give those airplanes a second opportunity to shine under a new shape," he continues.
While Gallina and Rutilo both have backgrounds in business studies and international trade, they also share a long-standing love of architecture and design. They founded Relicta, which translates from Latin to mean carcass or residue, in May, and their first creation was a wall-mounted, backlit piece of fuselage featuring four windows.
Since then, they have made tables and desks out of wing pieces, flaps and stabilisers, coffee tables out of engines, seats out of the nose cowl of a B737 and reception desks out of the nose cowl of a B747. Prices range from €6,000 (Dh31,422) for a coffee table to €12,000 (Dh62,883) for a larger table or piece of fuselage. Larger, custom-made pieces can go for up to €25,000 (Dh131,000).
While the idea behind Relicta was born in June 2010, it took almost a year to bring it to fruition, which offers some indication of the challenges involved, says Rutilo. Getting hold of old aircraft parts is even harder than one might imagine, he explains.
"First you need to have the right connections; you can't go into the middle of the Californian desert by yourself and start asking for airplanes. Once you've established good relationships, they let you know which aircraft are ready to be torn apart and will then provide you with the pieces. A lot of airplanes standing in the desert are just parked on standby; they will fly again eventually some day. So you have to be at the right place at the right time to get some of the carcasses."
Relicta does not specialise in specific types of planes - Gallina and Rutilo are happy to work with whatever parts they can get their hands on. This has included pieces from Boeing 747s and 737s, McDonnells and DC-9s.
They do, however, only work with pieces from airplanes that are tagged with their original names, ensuring that every item of Relicta furniture is entirely unique. "We can make things that look alike, but never the same," says Rutilo. "That is our main selling point."
Some of the more unusual items that the duo have been commissioned to create include an entire kitchen plan out of a Boeing 747 nose cowling, the largest circular piece on a plane. "The concept was to cut a quarter of the nose cowling and create a work plan inside with appropriate electrical furniture. The outside is a round-shaped piece of wood where you can place stools around and eat on the table. This was totally irrational to realise but extremely fulfilling to produce," says Gallina.
Meanwhile, a German client living in Thailand requested a seven-metre-long table to place on his rooftop. Gallina and Rutilo responded by taking the entire stabiliser from an MD-80 aircraft made by an Aero California company and transforming it into a table.
When Gallina and Rutilo acquire a piece of aircraft from a "boneyard", they have no idea what it will eventually evolve into. Rather than scouring the desert with designs already in mind, they let the pieces inspire them. "We try to find unique pieces with an attractive shape or with an uncommon design that we can re-elaborate in the future. Once the pieces are shipped and arrive in our Brussels-based warehouse, we start brainstorming," says Gallina.
The aim is to produce a concept that is entirely unique - and it often involves hours of creative deliberation. Once a design has been developed, the duo meet their technical team to determine whether their vision can be converted into reality. "In terms of conception, sometimes our creativity is too ambitious and we face issues with the technical realisation," says Rutilo. "So we have to pull out of some crazy projects."
Once parts are in situ and a design has been decided upon, it takes an average 65 hours of cutting, sanding, polishing and fine-tuning before the final product is ready. There is no "supply chain production" in the Relicta warehouse; every single product is treated as a one-of-a-kind, Rutilo maintains.
The duo initially assumed that their creations would only appeal to airplane enthusiasts. However, at the Relicta launch event in Brussels on May 5, which was attended by potential customers, members of the press, architects, designers and pilots, they learnt that the appeal of their creations was far broader than they had anticipated.
"We realised there was considerable potential with any interior deco and design addict. You don't have to be a fan of airplanes to want a piece of them. The response was really great. We thought at first it was going to be too 'masculine' a type of furniture but the [reaction] from the female gender was really unexpected," says Gallina.
The duo also visited Dubai in June to explore this market and will be returning to the UAE in October to visit Index 2011 at the Dubai World Trade Centre. Similar trips to Russia and Asia are already in the pipeline for next year. But the ultimate goal is not to become a global company creating mass-produced items, says Rutilo: "We want to keep it as unique as possible."