More than the icing

Designing interiors to meet the demand for quality
More than the icing

By Susan Parker |

The maritime environment is a demanding one for designers to work in, with both the building process and the range of products fit for purpose bringing challenges to the table. So it stands to reason that the closer – and the earlier – the collaboration between the shipyard, contractors and the designer, the better.

A relative newcomer to the industry and working on its first cruise ship, P&O Cruises’ Britannia, is Richmond International. Director Terry McGillicuddy comments: “The major challenge in designing in the maritime environment is the rapid speed at which the ship is constructed and finished. This dictates that the interior design concepts and commercial decisions need to be made very quickly without minimising the quality of the design and the finish.”

Timing is something that Trimline sales and marketing director Mike Oliver also flags up: “The earlier the interior outfitters can get to the table with the ship owner, designer and yard, the less compromise there will be with finishes that are out of stock. Having more time also gives the designer and interior outfitter more time to source alternatives if there are budget constraints. We can go to the market place and negotiate with confidence that we don’t have to buy at any price.” He adds that freight bills can also be reduced by containerising full loads and cutting out last-minute airfreighting “at ridiculous expense”.

Alan McVitty, creative director of McVitty interior consultants, gives voice to a view that is held by many: “My biggest gripe is that the shipyards have too much power. I get so frustrated that the yard and subcontractors have the capability to switch what has been specified by the designer. The design gets diluted and it ends up being an inferior product.” While recognising that work has to be done within budget and to regulations, he would like the designer to be given more autonomy so that they can make the final choices. “I think long-term if that did happen, the client and passenger would get the benefit.”

Viewing design from a cruise line perspective, deputy director, interior design at Holland America Line My Nguyen cites “time, logistics, maintenance, and compliance” as the biggest challenges to design in a maritime environment, never more so than on ship refit projects. “Finding luxurious materials that are durable and comply with IMO regulations is also a challenge,” she says. “A cruise ship is an operational floating hotel for most of the time and in a salt-water environment. This can be very hard on the lifespan of materials. Creating a design that looks like a high-end hotel is one part of our job. We must accomplish this through selecting materials and furniture that will hold up to the elements and pass strict fire regulations.”

McVitty believes that more suppliers “waking up to the fact that it is a growing market” means there is more choice in product ranges. But he says: “As hard as you try you cannot achieve a land-based finish on a commercial ship that will comply with regulations. I think it is just learning the tricks of the trade – knowing, for example, what are the best laminates that look like real wood. We try to mimic what would be on a land-based environment but doesn’t have weight or flammability issues.”

On Britannia, Richmond worked with a very small number of IMO-certified suppliers who were willing to develop special finishes specifically for this ship. McGillicuddy says: “If more suppliers were interested in developing and certifying new IMO ranges of materials then this additional choice would improve the differentiation of the interior design between competitive cruise ships.” For many suppliers, however, it is not worth conducting the rigorous maritime tests involved for bespoke pieces – which inevitably limits choices.

Oliver comments: “There is a real problem with IMO and ‘ship’s wheel’ certificated materials. As many products are purchased by a third party they do not know that their products eventually get installed on ships. I also don’t think suppliers are that good at keeping records of how much they are supplying to the shipping industry. Getting their goods tested for marine use is very expensive and when they have management meetings and questions get asked, the marine testing is one of the first costs to go. The net result is marine outfitters and designers are getting less and less choice.”

Nguyen believes that “good product is key to any successful design and there can always be developments in materials and furnishings” but that it is a “collaborative effort from the designer and the manufacturers to help realise the vision while complying with IMO standards”.

She also believes that marine design, which is less familiar to the mainstream architectural/design community, will benefit in future from increased exposure in education so that more designers can be attracted to embrace the industry. “Good design is bred by creative minds with vision, paired with willing clients,” she remarks.

Working to budget is paramount and with fit-out budgets being contractually agreed prior to any interior design involvement, Oliver says: “We had to focus the designs on the major elements within each area of the ship to achieve the greatest significant changes and passenger perception. Having a very good reliable supply chain helps considerably when seeking alternatives.” A solution at Trimline has been to bring as much in-house as possible to avoid what he refers to as “a mark-up on top of a mark-up”. For example, the company has recently brought the supply of catering equipment in-house, buying directly from the manufacturers.

While every project has cost considerations, McVitty says: “Quite often we present projects that are in excess of a client’s budget to create aspiration but then we have to be smart in implementing them.” One example is that of Windstar Cruises, which decided to run the cabin theme presented by McVitty throughout the fleet. “This makes sense as all the cabins and suites will have the same furnishings, which gives Windstar better buying power”.

Nguyen says: “The art of managing an overall successful design project is to identify where to invest the money for the ‘wow’ factors and how to achieve all the desired results of the project. It is an exciting challenge to find that balance of meeting the design intent while managing the budget.”

Multiple dining venues, wide-ranging sports activities and luxurious onboard spas are taken for granted these days but how will things look tomorrow? Richmond’s McGillicuddy says guests are likely to be more brand conscious than ever. “Each brand will need to differentiate itself with strong brand messages, interiors and service identities to address the competitiveness within the market and keep the passengers’ loyalty. To achieve this, ship interiors need to become more design-led with a stronger focus on spatial awareness, intelligent circulation and quality of materials.” The creative use of lighting also plays a major part in the design, he says.

Coming from a background in hotel design, which he brought to cruise ships some 15 years ago and which at that time was met with some resistance, McVitty says: “I think the designs will be reflective of the type of vessel and target markets they are trying to attract. Because people are more ‘travelled’ and because of the use of the internet, people can see aspirational interiors of hotels all over the world. Cruise has to reflect that. I also think operators will want things which will stand the test of time in terms of durability and wearing, that won’t date.”

Nguyen has a different take: “I see cruise ship design expanding upon being sustainable. It is important that we captivate our passengers by designing intriguing spaces that support the experiences offered to our guests. With that in mind, my hope is that five to ten years from now, it will be as common to find sustainable products offered to the cruise industry as it is currently for land-based projects.”

She comments: “Cruise lines go through great efforts to comply with environmental standards from a technical standpoint. However, we are not quite there yet when it comes to a full range of sustainable interior products and materials. This is already a movement on land so it is only a matter of time before it comes to the sea.”

Oliver expects brands to grow in importance: “There will be more branded products that passengers are familiar with in their normal lives ashore. That will be predominantly in the retail side with designer shops but will include branded restaurants, coffee and champagne bars.” He also believes that more public spaces will be broken up to be more intimate and that there will be a variety of smaller specialist restaurants offering European and Asian cuisine.

Of course, it is not always possible to have everything. In closing, Nguyen sums up the constant need for compromise that cruise interiors professionals face on a daily basis: “As a designer sometimes you have to let go of the icing and make sure you produce really good cake.”

This article appeared in the Autumn/Winter 2014 edition of International Cruise & Ferry Review. To read other articles, you can subscribe to the magazine in printed or digital formats.

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