Exploring inner character with interior design at P&O Australia

Pacific Explorer, the latest addition to P&O Australia’s fleet, emerged from her 12-day transformation in Singapore in June 2017. Jon Ingleton chats to Petra Ryberg about the modernisation of this elegant lady

Exploring inner character with interior design at P&O Australia
The refit of Pacific Explorer has resulted in a contemporary feel

This article was first published in the Autumn/Winter 2017 issue of Cruise & Ferry Interiors. All information was correct at the time of printing, but may since have changed.

Pacific Explorer was the third of the Sun-class ships originally built for Princess Cruises, sailing until this year as the Dawn Princess. Explaining how she fits into the fleet and what aspirations for the ship had driven the design direction, Petra Ryberg, head of design at P&O Australia, says: “We wanted P&O Cruises’ largest and latest ship to be the next stage in the evolution of the brand, building on our very popular modern Australian holiday offering with some exciting new features. Our aim was to take the winning features of our existing ships and add a whole new layer of excitement with some big wow moments like the waterslides, bowling green and The Bonded Store to put a smile on our guests’ faces and create a ship that offers something for everyone.”

At 20 years old, Pacific Explorer has been through the refit process a few times before, but this time around she looks more youthful than you might ordinarily expect. As Ryberg outlines the key elements of the design brief, it became clear that this contemporary feel was entirely intentional.

“Much of the design of Pacific Explorer is themed around Australian nature, botanicals, animals and traditional art and patterns that are inspired by my travels,” she says. “We sourced many of the ship’s furnishings, and particularly the art, from Australia and really tried to tap into what the market is looking for and enjoying in public spaces on land. The brief also stated the importance of trying to satisfy the desires of all the different people that enjoy cruise holidays with P&O from families and couples to groups. This would be achieved by creating smaller more intimate venues with different concepts.”

For Ryberg, one of her favourite spaces onboard is The Bonded Store, featuring a cocktail list created in partnership with the award-winning, Sydney-based Archie Rose Distilling Co. “When designing the space I went into this dreamy phase of thinking outside the box and developed a concept based around an actual explorer and what they would collect and source on their travels. We custom made wallpaper with vintage Australian stamps and paired that with a bookshelf of an explorer and quirky and unique accessories from all over the world including a rattle snake skin! The Bonded Store also has a hidden entrance which makes it even more special.”

She adds that The Explorer Hotel was a lot of fun to design too. “It is an Australian summer inspired pub with bright, open window seats and custom designs on the soft furnishing such as palm trees and tropical fish. We researched all around Sydney where we also bought a lot of the art and accessories. The Blue Mountains was a key location for our sourcing trips and we’re proud to have supported local antique shops and suppliers.”

The quality of craftsmanship is striking. While designers get the headlines for envisaging the interiors, the outfitters who realise these creations are frequently a footnote at best.

Ryberg was eager to share the credit with her co-designer and three of the finest outfitters in the business. “One star in the creation of Pacific Explorer is my design buddy Rosie Brown of Rosie & Co. We have been living and breathing Pacific Explorer for the last 18 months and worked very closely on all aspects of the design and build of the ship together. Key third-party contractors which we entrusted and who delivered a fantastic job include Mivan from Ireland, which helped to build The Waterfront, Angelos and Dragon Lady restaurants and the ship’s Atrium. This was the first time we worked with Mivan and they really delivered. Trimline helped to build our iconic bar, the Blue Room and The Bonded Store – an elegant new small featuring a cocktail list created in partnership with Sydney-based award winning Archie Rose Distilling Co. They also installed the outdoor lawn bowling green on the upper decks, which is a cruise ship first and transformed the kids’ clubs, HQ and HQ+. We continued our relationship with Italian design firm Precetti to install The Pantry, our international food marketplace of nine fresh food outlets. Precetti have now rolled out The Pantry concept across all of our fleet. The job wouldn’t have been possible without the close working relationships of all our partners, some new and other long-standing suppliers which we’ve worked with on numerous projects across the fleet and, of course, the in-house P&O Cruise team!”

Despite having so many different parties involved, Ryberg says that the interior design successfully comes together via a connecting theme. “I really want each room to feel different, to create diversity across the ship but it’s also important for them all to link together,” she says. “The thread running throughout all the spaces is a Modern Australian feel. When designing a ship, I like to evoke a feeling rather than a look and ensure people feel comfortable and at ease walking in to a space. With every room I like to construct a shape and style that is conducive for conversation and groups to gather, socialise, have fun or relax. I want to avoid creating an area where you walk in and feel like you can’t touch anything and need to ask permission before sitting down on the sofa! To me, the feeling of warmth links back to the theme of Modern Australia and the country’s culture which is warm and welcoming. None of the rooms are too garish nor are completely beige and bland but rather all have their different characters. I think these characters are the result of two lead designers (Rosie and myself) working on the project. We can really control each detail from the transition strip between the tile and the hard floor to the last pieces of art being installed in the area. Having that involvement is very important to me. Lastly, my overriding principle is to love every single item that I specify for a space. If something doesn’t feel right there is usually a reason for it and I keep looking and don’t settle.”

Even with the most comprehensive planning and big budgets, rarely do big refurbishment projects run entirely smoothly, but Ryberg is positive about this experience. “As always, the time pressure is always a challenge. The fact that we refurbish an entire ship in just 12 days is amazing. What makes that possible is all the background planning, which took about 18 months in total for this project. Sometimes it is challenging to gather inspiration and find the right feel for a space. There is no answer written in a book and the creative process is about trusting yourself and your decisions. I am always travelling and seek inspiration wherever I go, then sketch and create renders of my designs on planes to and from locations. This was most definitely the case when designing 400 Gradi, the traditional Neapolitan pizzeria restaurant onboard Pacific Explorer from the award-winning Melbourne chef Johnny Di Francesco. I searched for inspiration in Italy, the home of both 400 Gradi and the pizza. Travelling there many times, I would bring out my sketch papers or doodle on napkins while out and about ordering pizza and this helped to create the carpet patterns and concept for the restaurant. The carpet pattern is an actual tiled floor in a small restaurant in Genoa, Italy.”

Early passenger reviews following the Singapore refit have been very positive, so time now to sit back and soak up the accolades? “In a few days’ time I will be back in Singapore for the refurbishment of Pacific Eden where we are transforming the entertainment spaces including the Showlounge and Dome nightclub in line with our iconic modern Australian look and feel,” she says. “Over the next few months, our plans are to continue to think outside the square and identify world-class ideas and design concepts which will challenge the cruise ship norm and evolve the P&O brand. There is so much more to achieve!”

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