Ad agency founder tells of his passion for collecting airline memorabilia

Ad agency founder Richard Christiansen hasa passion for collecting anything to do with airlines and planes, he tells Kavita Daswani

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 19 December, 2013, 9:15pm
UPDATED : Friday, 20 December, 2013, 4:39pm

Every time Richard Christiansen flies into Hong Kong, his first stop is a little shop in Central. Once inside, he inevitably buys a small, hard-to-find model plane to add to his growing collection back home in the United States.

Christiansen is the founder of Chandelier Creative, one of New York's most vibrant boutique advertising agencies. It has offices in Shanghai, Beijing and Milan catering to Lane Crawford, The Peninsula and Shanghai Tang in Asia, as well as Nars, Target and Old Navy stateside.

All the jetting around has fuelled his love of airlines, a love engendered while growing up in Australia, where he and his twin brother shared "this amazing idea of getting on a plane and going far away to another country".

This "obsession", as he calls it, has morphed into a staggering collection of airline-related memorabilia that now forms part of Christiansen's calling card. Walk into one of his offices, or his New York home, and his affinity with airlines is everywhere.

There are large-scale metal models, which are exceedingly difficult to source in the US, and even a drinks cart that has been converted into a bar.

He has cocktail shakers and stirrers, napkins and plates all emblazoned with an airline's logo, and graphic artwork made out of the safety cards that nobody ever reads.

"It's about a design language," Christiansen says. "As the collection gets bigger and better, it spills out into different places, and it's something that people can come in and talk about. People look into my office, or the library, and see these models, and they see that what I love is design and branding, and the branding experience. There is no better metaphor for that than airlines."

In a library at Christiansen's New York office is a large upright metal airline model that was once proudly displayed in the office of a travel agency. "I have a soft spot for that one," he says of the model, a type which used to be gifted by airlines to their top agencies. Airlines stopped making them in the 1980s.

He found a Pan Am flag, in signature cobalt blue and white, in a Los Angeles flea market; he snapped it up and had it upholstered onto a coral red framed chair for dramatic impact. (The flag once flew outside a Pan Am office.)

Clusters of plane models of varying sizes are arrayed on a black tabletop, while safety cards were discreetly pilfered from various seat pockets over the years, and now serve as ice-breaking artwork.

He finds the larger models at a dealership based in a warehouse outside Paris. "I carted them back in pieces on my lap," he says.

"It's my favourite guilty pleasure," Christiansen says of his obsession. "The shop in Hong Kong [Air Bus Models, 1/F, 28 Pottinger St, Central, tel: 2259 5222] has more models of planes from different times than any store in the world. It's my first stop when I land." Christiansen grapples with how and where to display his possessions so they fuse with the rest of the environment, while still standing out as "a collection".

At dinner, don't be surprised if drinks are served from a Qantas bar trolley. If he is dining solo, he might break out the vintage Qantas cutlery. Cocktails might be served with a stirrer from an airline, coffee in a cup from Virgin or British Airways.

"When I was a kid, I used to take cutlery off planes," he admits. "I have whole table settings from different airlines, as well as safety cards, blankets. But I stopped stealing from planes when I was an adult. You can now buy that stuff online."

He keeps his massive collection of boarding cards in a large box at home. He vows he'll do something with them one day, and says he might turn them into artwork.

It's the little things like a logo, or font, or colour scheme, that appeal to him. "Every time I see one of those logos, it gives me a little glimmer of the glamour of travel around the world," he says.

"When people come in, it gives them something to talk about. It adds a nice layer to my work life. It gives it transparency, because it's all about things that I've touched."

He finds Asia to be a better source for items, as there are fewer collectors in the region. Memorabilia from airlines such as Pan Am or Braniff is at a premium because, Christiansen says, "there was so much good work done back then in typography; airlines had money to spend on their image".

"For some of these older airlines, it's the best work that's ever been done. The design work feels almost generic for most of today's airlines. With some airlines, you can tell that they have thought about the way they want design to be presented to the passenger," he adds.

He confesses to lots of late-night searches on eBay and 1stdibs, and many hours on the internet.

"I'm always keeping an eye open, especially in places like South America, or even in Europe, where travel agencies still have a foothold, and people are not online as much.

"The multi-generational family-run travel agencies, if you peek in the window, may have those big metal models, six-foot ones that sit in the waiting room, that may have been given to them years ago by the airline. I'll always see if they're interested in selling them."

This is not a cheap hobby - the larger models can cost up to US$10,000. "It's not pocket change," he says. "But they are all about the glory days."

The collection taps into a penchant for nostalgia, he says. But it's about more than that. Airlines should be even more focused on their branding and image than they are.

"There has to be a way, within the confines of an airline, and its standard materials, to emotionally move people, not just to move them from place to place," he says.

"They need to know how to pick something ubiquitous that everyone does, and sprinkle some sparkle into it. That way, the design uplifts the experience long after the journey has ended."