Design legend: TGA Design’s Tom Graboski

Alex Smith asks Tom Graboski about his pioneering 40-year career in cruise ship design, which has seen him sleep on tablecloths, work on the world’s largest ships, and help to transform the way we think about signage

Design legend: TGA Design’s Tom Graboski

Tom Graboski

By Alex Smith |

Tom Graboski’s journey into design began not on the sea, but on the road.  

From a young age, Graboski was interested in building model cars and between 1966 and 1968, he and his twin brother entered the annual Fisher Body Craftsman Guild model-building competition. He quickly showed talent, with his success being a sign of things to come. 

“I came second in the state all three years and was one of ten winners of the National Styling Awards in 1968 for my urban electric car design,” recalls Graboski. “This introduced me to the ArtCenter College of Design in California, where I started in the transportation design department. I then switched to architectural interiors after spending a summer on a big bank project, during which the pioneering interior designer Florence Knoll was both our client’s wife and the design liaison.” 

After his studies, Graboski designed several corporate office spaces, before beginning to work with a partner carrying out retail and small signage projects. It was then that his break into the cruise industry came. He and his partner were asked to show their work to an advertising agency representing Norwegian Cruise Line for the refurbishment of SS France, which was to become SS Norway. 

“We were hired in December 1979 and the ship was delivered on 29 April 1980,” says Graboski. “We were simultaneously designing and putting signs into production while breaking in fabricators in Europe who were not at all familiar with the techniques we wanted to use. The early signage on ships was done mostly by the shipyard using easily maintainable materials and methods, so we were bringing design to an area on the ship that had previously been viewed as strictly utilitarian.” 

SS Norway sign

Tom Graboski

Graboski’s first involvement in the cruise industry was the conversion of SS France into Norwegian Cruise Line’s SS Norway

That first project prompted a whirlwind of activity for Graboski and his team. Graboski recalls a memorable exchange with Norwegian’s chief financial officer who wanted him to head to the ship urgently, saying: “Take the Concorde if you have to, but get here now!” Graboski was soon spending three months working onboard the ship from a makeshift office in the grand Ile de France suite. 

“As the maiden voyage date approached, we were informed that no workers were available to install the signage and we should recruit a team to do the work,” says Graboski. “We supplemented our on-site staff of three designers with thirteen of our Miami design staff, friends and family – basically anyone who could hold a caulking gun – and sailed with the ship from Bremerhaven to Oslo and then Southampton. 

SS Norway designers

Tom Graboski

Designers on the SS Norway project, from left: Jack McLaughlin, Katharina Drexel, Tom Graboski

“To say the ship was unfinished isn’t an exaggeration. The cabins were far from complete; we couldn’t find bed linens for the first night onboard, so we made do with tablecloths.  

The crossing was a “crazy adrenaline rush”, says Graboski. “Our days were filled with sign installations and our evenings with dinners and dancing with paying guests and dignitaries, including the Princess of Norway. Working at that intensity was stressful but invigorating, an experience hard to duplicate anywhere else other than a cruise ship project.” 

Building on those tumultuous beginnings, Graboski struck out on his own to found TGA Design and began a series of projects for the brand now operating as Royal Caribbean International. The firm took part in renovations for Sun Viking, Nordic Prince and Song of Norway, before winning its first newbuild project for the largest cruise ship in the world at the time, Sovereign of the Seas. Projects on 40 more ships for Royal Caribbean and Celebrity Cruises as well as 40 more for a range of other lines. 

Graboski’s approach to cruise ship signage combines the fundamental principles of wayfinding – which he describes as “the ability to visualise movement through complex environments and communicate that information as directly as possible” – with a design sensibility that appeals to the guest. 

“We were one of the first firms to start the design of a wayfinding and sign programme for a ship by taking a holistic approach to every sign and with a goal of enhancing the guest experience,” says Graboski. “We started branding and theming the entry features of the public rooms by adding architectural details, art and objects, not just a plaque on the wall. This allowed us to achieve a greater integration of design than previously used, creating ‘experiential design’ before the phrase was invented.” 

By the 1990s, cruise ships were growing larger, and signage needs were changing. The labour-intensive process of producing a silk-screened image was replaced by digitally printed images, opening up a new range of possibilities for designers like Graboski. 

“Theming and branding moved forward with digitally printed signs and wall coverings, creating environmental design without actual built materials,” explains Graboski. “Outside decks became theme parks. In one of our projects, we worked with the architects to create the giant anglerfish entry portal to The Abyss slide on Oasis of the Seas and its sister ships.” 

Entering the 2000s, technology began to become even more deeply embedded within the design of cruise ships and their signage. 

“More than 20 years ago, we suggested the idea of radio-frequency identification chips that could be an ‘always on your person’ item, but our client wasn’t ready for it,” says Graboski. “Now, similar technologies have been widely implemented by multiple cruise lines. We started working with Norwegian during this time, and continued to refine static and digital wayfinding concepts, combining the two to create a branded look for the ship’s digital information that recalled the appearance of its physical signage.” 

Graboski has seen every step of the evolution of the cruise industry over the last 40 years, and he reflects on the profound transformation of the onboard experience that has taken place. 

“In the beginning, ships were designed to provide an onboard experience which hearkened back to the days of ocean liners, with basic informational signage” he says. “Today, the ships have become destinations unto themselves, and themed environments are the norm. Knut Kloster, the visionary owner of Norwegian when we worked on the SS Norway project, had an idea for a 10,000 passenger, 1,500-foot ship called Phoenix. It was budgeted at around 
$2 billion and was to be a destination of its own. At the time it was considered unrealistic; 40 years later, Royal Caribbean has all but achieved this vision with its Oasis and Icon-class ships.” 

One hallmark of Graboski’s time in the cruise industry has been his long-lasting relationships with both clients and suppliers, and he credits these partnerships for his success. 

“The key to our 43 years in business at TGA Design has been great clients for whom our talented designers developed creative designs and the fantastic suppliers who have worked with us to implement them,” says Graboski. “On the client side, we’ve worked with Royal Caribbean for over 40 years, while our fabricator SFY Architectural Signs and Marahrens have worked with us for 25 and 30 years respectively. The challenges along the way were overcome with the successful collaboration between our clients and the brilliant architects and designers.”  

As he looks ahead to the future, Graboski is excited about what’s still to come for his firm. 

“We are optimistic about the future, designing for both land and sea-based projects,” says Graboski. “We are in the construction phase for both the new MSC Cruises terminal in Miami and a major development in downtown Miami called Block 55, which will house MSC’s corporate headquarters. We’re also involved in our fourth major project with Universal Studios in Orlando, as well as the new Inter Miami Soccer Stadium. The future looks bright.” 

This article was first published in the 2024 issue of  Cruise & Ferry Interiors. All information was correct at the time of printing, but may since have changed. Subscribe  for FREE to get the next issue delivered directly to your inbox.  

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