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Didier Wolff: Taking art to new heights

by Matthew Beattie

Didier Wolff is an artist like no other. Rather than paint-splattered easels, you will find computers and three-dimensional models in his Strasbourg studio. His distinctive creations do not hang on any walls. The canvas for this multi-award-winning French artist is the three-dimensional sculpture of an aircraft and his gallery is the sky.

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Didier explains Carboneum livery design of a Bombardier Global 6000 at RUAG Aviation, Oberpfaffenhofen. (Photo: Sebastien Brillais)

The American graphic designer Milton Glaser once famously said that there are three responses to a piece of design: yes, no and WOW! Catch a glimpse of one of Didier Wolff’s distinctive aircraft liveries and it is almost impossible not to utter an admiring “WOW!” From multicolored pinstripes to the intricate weave of carbon fiber on a tailfin, no livery design is too unorthodox, no technical challenge too difficult to overcome. Every concept he creates at his studio in Strasbourg, France, is a labor of love and as unique as his clients themselves.

The art of customization

Traditionally, aircraft livery design has always erred on the side of caution: one or perhaps two colors, a logo here, and a line there. Operators who challenged these long-established norms – for example, British Airways, with their controversial World Images tailfin designs of the late 1990s – were not rewarded for their bravery.

However, times change and tastes evolve. Nowadays, there is a growing trend toward greater personalization in the aviation sector. From bespoke hand-finished cabin interiors to custom paint jobs, today’s owners and operators are looking for new ways to put their unique stamp on their aircraft – and more importantly, to stand out from the crowd. Didier and his company, Happy Design Studio, take the concept of custom livery and turn it into an art form. His designs not only make an aircraft stand apart from the crowd; they make it the star of the show.

The ultimate canvas

Didier’s love affair with art and design began in early childhood, when he would paint murals in his bedroom. His parents set aside a wall for him to paint on to stop him from using the entire apartment as his canvas. His love of working on a grand scale has remained with him ever since, “Before I worked with aircraft, I was a photographer and I loved to work with large-format images. I also did illustrations for posters and my gallery was the street. As an artist, you want your work to be seen.” Didier’s interest in aircraft came to him later in life, when he learnt to fly a single-engine airplane in 1998. “There’s a certain poetry to aircraft and the sky. Something I love. An aircraft is a huge three-dimensional sculpture and the ultimate blank canvas. It makes the sky a gallery for my work, where it can be seen by many people,” he says.

Transforming an aircraft into an airborne masterpiece usually begins with meeting the client and learning more about them; however, there are occasions when more discreet customers prefer to communicate purely via email. This can add to the challenge of interpreting their requirements. Fortunately, Didier has developed a keen talent for reading his clients and understanding what is important to them: “Usually my customers don’t know exactly what they want, but often they’re able to give me a taste,” he explains. “General hints, such as ‘I don’t like red’ or ‘I want something dark.’ From this initial briefing, I go to my studio with a feeling. Then, from the point I start working on ideas, I ignore the brief for a while and let the aircraft speak for itself.” Every type of aircraft is unique, and the contours, angles and nuances of the structure shape Didier’s vision for the livery.

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The Carboneum design is revealed to the world. It took thirty people and more than 2,500 hours of work to become a reality.

The pursuit of perfection

Didier designs four or five distinct concepts, which he then presents to the customer. “They usually see something of themselves in one of the designs; sometimes they might love two or three. Based on this feedback, I propose five more designs and so on. It is a practical process moving toward complete satis­faction.” Sometimes he can strike it lucky with the first concept – as was the case with a design project he recently completed for a client – at other times, he can create upward of 100 proposals with 200 options. “I can have the customer’s approval for the fuselage or tail, but I might have to send multiple additional proposals for the winglets,” he explains. While such an intensive design process would discourage some artists, Wolff is a perfectionist and relishes his time in the studio. “I can work on details for hours and hours,” he says.

No less intensive is Didier’s hands-on approach to seeing his designs made a reality in the aircraft paint shop. “I’m
active on site throughout the painting process,” he says. “There are times when questions arise – such as ‘Where do you want to finish this curve?’ – and if I’m not there, someone else will make that decision based on their own vision rather than mine. My loyalty must be to my customer and to my artistic vision. I know exactly what I want and only I can know it.”

No place for good enough

Didier also believes it is important to work with the right paint shop. “Some of them are excellent and will support you in every way they can to realize your vision; others don’t have a very good professional conscience. One paint shop once told me, ‘You want the exact same design on both the port and the starboard side of the aircraft, but it’s impossible for anyone to see both of them at the same time.’ I cannot accept that kind of attitude.” Didier’s intricate designs require complete precision. Whether the aircraft is a Cessna or a large Airbus, the tolerance for error is just one millimeter. He has worked with the RUAG paint shop on several projects – most notably, the “Carboneum” design, which won him the prestigious European Product Design Award in 2018. “When I design a livery, I do consider the work for the paint shop, but sometimes I want to work without having a full idea about how I will apply the design to the aircraft. In such cases, it is important to work with a team you can trust to help you find the solution to challenges.

“I go to my studio with a feeling. Then, from the point I start working on ideas, I ignore the brief for a while and let the aircraft speak for itself.”

Didier takes inspiration for his livery designs from the world around him, as well as from a lifetime of artistic endeavor. His design visions are all his own, although that is not to say the work of other artists is not important to him. “We’re constantly invaded by images from advertising, from TV and so on. At least once a year, I visit the Louvre in Paris to reset my eye and go back to the foundations of color, light, perspective and proportion. I go to look at the paintings and sculptures. My soul is richer when I leave and I feel full again.”

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A RUAG paint specialist prepares to apply another layer of paint to Bombardier Global 6000. (Photo: Sebastien Brillais)

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