Aeroplane enthusiasts and fellow French men based in Sydney, Australia, David Clement and Etienne Proust, have turned their part-time hobby into a fully fledged business where their pieces of restored and upcycled vintage aircraft propellers and aero-furniture are sought after by collectors and designers around the world. They source their parts from original planes from the 1930s to the 1970s and describe their business Propell’art as a place where ‘aviation meets modern art’.
Come and meet the aero-upcycling duo and learn more about their passion …
Please introduce yourselves – tell us a bit about your backgrounds and how you’ve ended up where you are today.
Etienne: I’m French-Australian and have been in Australia for thirteen years, working as head barista in a city coffee shop. I am passionate about classic cars and restore abandoned cars, mostly British cars, Jaguars, MGs etc then sell them or keep them.
Dave: I am French born and have been in Australia for eleven years now, working in marketing and strategy for an import and distribution business. I’m also importing French Single Malt Whisky as a personal project. I’ve always been passionate about mechanics and used to fix old cars and motorbikes in France. This is how we met and became best friends over the years.
I remember seven years ago Etienne came back from France and showed me pictures of amazing propellers he saw at his father’s best friend’s shop in Paris. We wanted to source two vintage airplane propellers for us but found a lot of three. After finishing the first one, our friends and others became interested and this is when we started to grow bigger and take our hobby to the next level.
When and why did you fall in love with vintage aircraft?
Etienne: I love the design of planes from the 1920s to now. They’re obviously very aerodynamic, and polished aluminium is extra shiny so what’s not to like? When I was in Paris for a few months back in 2005 one of my best friends asked me to mind her father’s (Pierre Farman) shop for few hours as she couldn’t do it. What used to be an antique shop was turned into an aero-style shop with propellers and various plane parts. It was love at first sight.
Dave: My great grandfather was a French pilot who, at seventeen, went to the UK to fly for the Royal Air Force in London during WWI. I’ve always dreamed about this man, looking at the pictures and stories about him. Then the father of my old friend, who is also a pilot, used to take us on Wednesdays and Sundays to his aero-club in France. Etienne then introduced me to his friend, Pierre Farman, eight years ago and we became good friends. We love talking about the techniques we’re using to polish propellers but also the history of the planes and how to source great parts. Now, if you look at those propellers, they are a symbol of freedom. I’m always thinking of Leonard da Vinci or even Romanian sculptor Brancusi. As we now do a lot of aero-furniture, I’m also a big fan of Marc Newson who has been using fuselage and pieces of aircraft to get his inspiration, as we do now.
Where do you source the parts from?
Ahah, big secret, I won’t tell you! Actually there are a few places in Germany, France, Italy, Africa and the USA where we buy and exchange most of our parts and propellers. We often connect and meet with aeroplane aficionados who have been flying and collecting bits and pieces their whole life. It’s always good to catch-up and exchange parts and stories. You have to understand that propellers are rare and expensive, and the rarer and older the plane, the harder it is to source such propellers. But perseverance is the key and we’ve uncovered some surprises over the years.
Tell us about some of the old aircrafts you’ve upcycled and what you’ve created with them?
One of our favourite vintage propellers was a first-generation propeller blade from a Dakota DC-3 from 1946. All the serial numbers were matching and the warranty shows it was one of the first original blades produced and mounted on a specific DC-3 that ended up in Australia in 1963. This propeller has been sold to a customer in Dubai who collects all sorts of rare gemstones and pieces of art. To be honest, we missed this propeller as it was a perfect design with one of the best mirror finish polishes we’ve ever got!
Another part we love is a piece of a wing from a DHC-115 Vampire Jet from the early 1960s that we mounted and turned into a desk. The piece of fuselage was absolutely rotten when we first got it from South Victoria, Australia, two years ago. We restored it to its original state but kept some of its history with the marks and cracks. The desk is like a piece of art.
I believe Propell’art is not your sole profession and you both have other work and interests. What is or has been the hardest or most challenging part of setting up the business and creating the works?
Glad you ask as this has been and is still a challenge for several reasons. First, we deal with vintage aircraft parts that are not supposed to be going back onto the public market as they are non-serviceable and cannot fly any more. Second, because finding a proper workshop in Sydney is not an easy job, especially when we work on weekends and at nights due to our work and other activities. Also, the fact that we deal with international collectors and aircraft graveyards, the difficulty is getting the parts properly packed and shipped to Australia. Most of them are over-sized, as you can imagine, and cannot fit in a standard pallet. Last but not least, we struggle to find the power tools we want so once again we import them in order to get our mirror finish polish which has become our signature. I remember when we started – the challenge was to get a shop that would carry our creations but now we get enquiries every month from those who said no years ago.
Tell us about how you work together – how do you share the roles?
Dave: Etienne and I do all the work but having said that due to my work, I’m deal with the sourcing, international logistics and the website. Etienne works on the parts, tooling, processing as he has more time to access the workshop. In regards to the showroom in Alexandria, we both go twice a week to bring new pieces and change the setup of the stand, and we both look at new opportunities we can think of. Overall, I’d say that we both do a lot as we’re very passionate and proud of this hobby of ours. What is certain is that we complete each other and this works super well!
What are some of your important tools of trade?
First, I guess, is the quality of our network which is at the centre of what we do, both in the sourcing and buying of new aircraft parts and vintage propellers but also in the selling as we sell direct and deal with aeroplane aficionados, interior designers and architects after an aero-industrial look. Second, are the tools and techniques we have developed over the years to get the results we want. The right tool used the right way coupled with perseverance leads to quality and a unique finish. The third is flexibility within the design by marrying what we think is beautiful and looks good with what the customer wants. Because there is no limit to what we can imagine and design, it is sometimes challenging to choose the optimal way in which to utilise a piece of wing or fuselage or engine part.
What are you working on at the moment and/or tell us about any big projects you might have coming up?
We are working on three projects at the moment. The first is an exhibition we are putting together, which will happen in Sydney in a few months, before summer hopefully. We are always very keen on exhibiting because it brings our creations to the public and allows people to look at our propellers and vintage parts in a different way. The second project is a fantasy we have to create a massive sculpture. We have the design in mind and are now collecting parts around the world in order to get enough elements to assemble. I guess this may see the light in a year or so, but you’ll know about it when it’s done, that’s for sure. The third project is more of a collaboration, bringing street artists and painters to ‘’pause’’ on our stuff, but enough said for the moment as this is confidential!
It’s not very cool, but I/we really like…
Etienne: Trying to be eco-friendly and recycling parts is the cool part, but l love the sound of a very dirty engine!
Dave: It’s not very cool but I like old Warbirds, maybe because my ancestor was a pilot. Having said that I hate war and try not to promote weapons or warplanes at all. This is also because when I look at the archives of airplane pioneers, I wish I had the opportunity to fly such planes, especially the ancestor of the A380, the Catalina double-decker sea-plane, immense seaplanes with eight engines or even the Flying Fortress.
Have you ever had a ‘who’d have thought’ moment? Explain.
Dave: When we started we didn’t think we’d be selling our propellers to anyone at all!
One of our major ‘who’d have thought’ moments was when, after polishing old propellers for nearly a day with our cotton disks, the machine touched one of the tinted concrete bases we had in the workshop. We hadn’t been sure of the look and texture of these concrete blocks and had been looking at other options. But when the rotating power tool we were using touched the concrete base with the cotton disc rotating at 7000 rpm, creating aluminium dust, the aluminium powder transferred to the concrete block. It was like magic for us as the finish turned into a shiny metallic concrete on steroids. We did some more tests and eventually released a special series of rare propellers mounted on those bases – who’d have thought?
Thanks so much David and Etienne for your time!