Is Art the Next Luxury Airline Amenity?
On a brisk April morning in Paris, artist Kevin Lyons boarded a plane that had been taken over by monsters.
To be fair, the monsters in question were just Lyons’s own drawings—a series of bespoke whimsical creatures bedecking the windows of the Boeing 757, operated by the French boutique airline La Compagnie, which commissioned the project. The company is billing it as the first collaboration between an artist and an airline of its kind—a veritable in-flight gallery that will remain on view throughout the month—and that day was its inaugural voyage.
La Compagnie exclusively shuttles passengers—business-class only—between Paris and New York. The airline has been known to work with chefs, filmmakers, and other creatives to develop in-flight experiences for their passengers. It approached Lyons earlier this year, after seeing his work for brands like Vans, Nike, and IKEA. The airline was keen for him to develop new versions of his grinning, bug-eyed characters, which are as goofy and upbeat as those of Kenny Scharf or André Saraiva. La Compagnie wanted the effusive cartoon monsters to riff on the typical behaviors of airplane passengers en route to or from France: snoozing, donning oversized headphones, sipping cocktails, and applying makeup.
Since in-air selfies and aerial photos taken at 30,000 feet are wildly popular on Instagram, it made sense to place the drawings (in the form of adhesives) on the plane’s windows.
“Because of my intimate relationship between Paris and New York it felt really natural for me to do,” says Lyons, who often travels between the two cities to work for companies like the boutique Colette. “And a brand that’s open to art is a brand that I want to work with.” We are riding together from Paris to New York, surrounded by the buoyant drawings. From my window seat, I’m confronted by a laughing monster.
For the commission, Lyons created a total of 40 different images, which were then applied to 80 windows (all but those at the fire exits). A large, grinning critter is also splashed across the plane’s tail. Each airline passenger is given an accompany ’zine that collects all of the drawings. “The best thing these monsters do is put smiles on people’s faces,” Lyons says. (He first started drawing them for his young daughter, to encourage her to eat her lunch.) “The thing about them is they’re not male or female, black or white, Jewish or Catholic. They’re not divisive, they are who they are.”
While doing research for the project, Lyons scoured Instagram for photographs taken from planes: round windows framing idyllic sunsets or cityscrapes, as well as drawings and selfies. The goal, he says, was to find a way to make passengers socially engage with his characters. “It’s one thing to do art, but this is not technically an art show, it’s a fun experiment where I want people to be involved.”
This is not the first time an airplane has been adorned with art, of course. During World Wars I and II, pilots would recruit ground-crew members and later professional “nose-artists” (artists who specialized in painting on front tip of the plane) to add insignias and pin-up girls to the exteriors of military aircrafts. And commercial airlines have been known to jazz up their Boeing 777s with contemporary art; Continental launched a pop-art jet designed by Peter Max in 1999, and the Brazilian national soccer team’s plane was transformed by street art duo OSGEMEOS in advance of the 2014 World Cup.
But Lyons and La Compagnie have broached new territory with their monsters, delving into the prickly logistics of air-travel regulations. Illustrations had never been placed on a plane’s windows, and Lyons created the work without complete assurance that the project would even be approved.
La Compagnie head of marketing Anne Crespo notes that safety constraints guided each step. Lyons needed to ensure that passengers could see through the plexiglass; the drawings needed to be transparent, occupying less than half of the window. He couldn’t use color due to the possible light interactions. After the designs were complete, the airline had to source a company that could turn them into adhesive stickers able to withstand harsh environments, while also meeting travel authorities’ regulations. They spent a month testing prototype stickers, shocking them with light and fire. (The logistics were so complicated, Crespo admits, that they might not repeat the same experiment. “We can do another kind of arty project in the future that doesn’t involve window stickers,” she says. “We’ll be creative.”)
Lyons anticipates that this groundbreaking partnership will lead to likeminded efforts. He muses over hypothetical options—like a Delta collaboration with KAWS. “The airline industry is a copycat industry. Now that we’ve shown that this is possible, I’m sure others will do the same,” Crespo says. Still, she thinks it’s important that La Compagnie has set the precedent in this unique space: “That’s the cool part of being small and creative.”