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A new flight plan for success

Ever since MotoArt began five years ago, sales have soared -- propelling its owners to expand the furniture business overseas.

February 28, 2007|David Colker | Times Staff Writer

Donovan Fell makes coffee tables out of jet engines, conference tables from airplane wings and desk chairs out of pilot ejection seats.

And last year, his furniture brought in $1.5 million.

Fell is co-owner of MotoArt, a Torrance-based company that turns vintage aviation parts into fixtures for the home and office, if the buyer has an aviation fixation. Or just wants something unique.

None of it comes cheap. It's hard to find anything in MotoArt's spacious shop for less than $1,000, and a conference table can be as much as $35,000.

This is recycling for the wealthy.

"Rich guys come down here and their eyes light up," said co-owner Dave Hall, 39. "We envy them and they envy us."

"Then we make a little trade," said Fell, 57.

Although the business took off faster than either salesman Hall and designer Fell imagined when they started it as a sideline in a garage five years ago, it's their next flight plan that could be the most daunting.

They want to take MotoArt, an artisan business with 13 employees, and turn it into a mass marketer with factories and showrooms around the world.

"We make everything here, right now," said Fell, standing in their 12,000-square-foot workshop next to Torrance Municipal Airport. "What we need to do is knock ourselves off."

The showroom area, upstairs from the shop, has been outfitted in aviation-fantasy, bachelor-pad decor.

There are rolling bars that were food carts once pushed by flight attendants. Cleaned up and plated with aluminum for an industrial-chic look, they go for $1,500 each.

In a corner is the DC-3 Martini Table ($7,900) with a nearly 5-foot-tall propeller mounted on top. Nearby is the Get Bombed Table ($5,400), which incorporates a World War II practice bomb with a hinged nose so that it can be used as an ice bucket.

Hall estimated that 80% of MotoArt's customer base is male.

"Some of them fly into the airport to see us," he said. "This is like a clubhouse for them."

Dom Cecere, chief financial officer of Westwood-based builder KB Home, saw a picture in a magazine of a MotoArt table, with a 1930s airplane engine for a base.

"I fell in love with it, bought it and before I knew it, I was buying more," Cecere said. He outfitted his home office with the table (about $10,000, at current prices), a custom-designed B-25 wing desk ($10,000) and a B-52 crew ejection seat ($4,900).

"No one walks into the house and says, 'I've seen that before,' " Cecere said.

Fell and Hall met in 2000 at a company that designed signs for Dodger Stadium, Union Station and Disneyland. As a sideline, Fell liked to buy and restore beat-up airplane propellers that once powered prominent military and commercial airplanes. Mounted on bases, they would go for $700 and up at flea markets.

The men struck out on their own as partners in a sign business in 2002, and Fell kept at his propellers. Hall tagged along when Fell took several to sell at a classic auto auction.

"Dave is a brilliant salesman," Fell said, "and when he saw the reaction people were having to them, he saw the real dollar value."

Fell revved up the propeller renovations, working out of Hall's garage in Palos Verdes. Within six months they had enough business to start phasing out the signs and move the renovation operation to a 900-square-foot building. There, Fell added the martini table and other pieces of furniture, which they sold at air shows and other events.

To help meet expenses, they sometimes bartered for services.

"We had our attorney for four years without paying him a penny," Fell said, "but he got a lot of our pieces."

They traveled to airplane scrap yards to find parts. A breakthrough came when Fell insisted, over Hall's objections, on buying a stack of paratrooper exit doors that had been on military C-119s.

Fell made 20 tables of the doors bought for $100 apiece. The first one they sold went for $4,000 and they continually raised the price to see what the market would bear. The last 10 sold for $10,000 each.

Buoyed by word of mouth and articles in upscale magazines, the enterprise grew. Fell and Hall's business struggles were even detailed in an eight-episode reality series, "Wing Nuts," which first aired in 2004 on the Discovery Channel.

That same year, MotoArt moved into its current building. Several large jobs came its way, including outfitting a reception area and conference room at 19 Entertainment, the London-based company that produces "American Idol." It also sold pieces to Boeing Co. for offices in Seal Beach. "They were buying furniture from us made of parts they originally manufactured," Hall said.

On a recent day, MotoArt employees buzzed around the shop floor and outside work spaces sanding and polishing aluminum surfaces, a process that can take as long as two weeks on a large part.

Raw parts were everywhere -- propellers lined up against walls, jet spinners hung from the ceiling, beat-up rolling carts tucked away in a shed.

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