Why Studio DADO has built a team of curious creatives

Greg Walton outlines the skills designers must develop to create compelling cruise interiors
Why Studio DADO has built a team of curious creatives

Studio DADO

From left, Greg Walton and his dog Enzo with fellow Studio DADO co-ounders Yohandel Ruiz, Javier Calle and Jorge Mesa

By Rebecca Gibson |

Located in The Bahamas, Norwegian Cruise Line’s Great Stirrup Cay offers a private “idyllic island paradise” for guests sailing on its Caribbean cruises. In 2019, the island underwent a major renovation to introduce an exclusive lagoon retreat, expansive spa, beachfront luxury villas and public areas, all of which have been meticulously crafted to offer a full sensory experience by US-based interior design firm Studio DADO.

“The full design landscape – which includes everything from hanging chairs to light-diffusing sheer curtains, oversized bedside lamps, driftwood elements and mixed finished woods – is curated to deliver a relaxed luxury experience and make Norwegian’s guests feel as though they’re in their own private holiday home on their personal island,” says Greg Walton, one of Studio DADO’s four founding partners.

Studio DADO’s work on Great Stirrup Cay has earned the company rave reviews from guests and well-deserved acclaim from the cruise industry and interior design world. According to Walton, the reason behind the success of the design is simple: everyone in the Studio DADO team has honed the key qualities that every talented designer should possess – passion, curiosity, patience, open-mindedness and active listening skills.

“Passion and curiosity are two of the biggest drivers of creativity,” he says. “When you’re passionate about something, you become curious to find out everything there is to know about it, and if it’s something like interior design, you want to know how you can become better at it. You start seeking inspiration from anyone, anywhere and anything – and then you are well on your way to becoming a successful designer.”

For Walton, travel is one of the biggest sources of inspiration. “Whenever I travel for pleasure, I go away for weeks at a time because this gives me the opportunity to fully explore the destination, try the local cuisine, explore the architecture and immerse myself in the culture,” he explains. “Some of my most memorable trips include three weeks in Tibet travelling through the Himalayas and a holiday in South Africa with my friend from Cape Town. Experiencing the sights, sounds, scents and tastes of so many places gives me an extensive bank of resources to draw inspiration from when I’m designing concepts for cruise ships that host guests of multiple nationalities and call at destinations all over the world.”

Walton’s passion and curiosity extends far beyond interiors and into the intricacies of successfully managing the business side of cruise ship projects. In fact, he advises that every designer should also study business management to complement their design and architecture qualifications – he himself has a master’s degree in business, as well as one in architecture and design.

“Designers and architects are taught to solve problems in a linear way, but clients and other project stakeholders do not necessarily take the same approach,” he says. “In reality, most projects follow a circular process where we create an initial design concept and then receive input and feedback from various other stakeholders to ensure it fits with client requirements, budgets, maritime regulations and many other factors. Having both a design and business education allows me to view things from two very different perspectives and understand the challenges on both sides. It also diversifies my problem-solving abilities, which makes the whole process much easier for me as the designer, and for the client and other project stakeholders.”

Taking multiple perspectives into consideration when working on solving design challenges is imperative, says Walton. “Recently our team was working on a design concept and we kept questioning each other and pushing ourselves to take our ideas further and by the end of the day, we all agreed that we’d created something very special,” he says. “When the client saw it, they were blown away as it surpassed their expectations. Of course, we’re going to have to solve several practical challenges to make our vision a reality, but our team will work closely with the client and the other stakeholders to achieve this. Questioning everything can be tiring and challenging, but if we ever lost our curiosity, it would mean that we had lost our passion to design something amazing.”

Approaching every project with an intensely inquisitive mindset empowers designers like Studio DADO to push beyond well-established design boundaries to create immersive and innovative spaces that guests can connect with on a personal level.

“It’s very easy to look on sites like Pinterest or Instagram and copy the most popular interior design ideas, but this won’t necessarily help you to create a space that tells a story or truly resonates with guests,” explains Walton. “To achieve that, you need to delve a lot deeper and pinpoint exactly what it is that makes a particular design aesthetic so appealing to people. You must evaluate the impact of individual design elements – such as the colour palette, patterns, textures, lighting, flooring, furnishings and the shape and flow of the space – to understand how they all work together to evoke a particular mood or atmosphere. This allows you to experiment by changing certain elements or combining them in different ways to work out how they can be used most effectively in the space you’re creating.”

Looking back at historical architecture can also help designers to derive insights into how they can develop engaging spaces that serve as a platform for cruise operators to deliver a certain type of experience for their guests. When Studio DADO designed the atrium on Norwegian Cruise Line’s upcoming Project Leonardo ships, for example, it started by analysing some of the world’s most popular “gathering spaces”, such as Times Square in New York City, St. Mark’s Square in Venice, and the Spanish Steps in Rome. The team also looked at the Hyatt Regency Atlanta in Georgia, USA, which was designed by John Portman in 1967 and introduced a contemporary new atrium concept that revolutionised hotel design.

Noting that the atrium will be the “literal and figurative heart” of the Leonardo-class ships, Walton says: “We wanted the atrium to be more than just a nice space that guests pass through on their way to somewhere else; we wanted it to be a space that draws people in and encourages them to congregate and enjoy socialising together.

“Places like St. Mark’s Square and the Spanish Steps have been enthralling people for centuries, so we wanted to pinpoint why they are so popular. We looked at everything from the overall shape of the spaces to the entry/exit points, how they are connected to the buildings around them, which elements of the design encourage people to linger and which help to keep people flowing smoothly to prevent bottlenecks.”

Studio DADO then took a risk, presenting its insights to Norwegian’s executives before it had developed a detailed design concept for the atrium. Fortunately, they were intrigued by the design firm’s unorthodox and effective approach. “After we explained how our research would help us to create a unique atrium unlike any other seen on a cruise ship, Norwegian’s team were thrilled,” says Walton. “Like us, they realised the benefits of taking a high-level view of the space, defining the type of experience we want to curate, and then diving down into the finer details such as the colour palette furnishings and lighting.” Walton champions the idea of taking an unconventional approach to design. “You must always be aware that your ideal design might not be achievable in a practical or financial sense, but if you limit yourself with these constraints at the beginning of the project, you’ll never be innovative,” he explains. “Sometimes you have to take a leap of faith and push forward with your ideas, even if you know that they will likely have to be reworked in future.”

Working in this way means that it is vital for designers to develop patience. “The old adage that patience is a virtue is very much true because cruise ship projects involve multiple stakeholders and design changes happen frequently,” says Walton. “For instance, the shipowner may want to update elements of the décor scheme, or the shipyard may ask to reconfigure the layout of a venue to make it possible to build. This can be frustrating because it’s time consuming to produce new drawings and you might have to redesign the space multiple times before everyone is happy.

“It would be easy to let ego and emotions take over, but this often leads to people saying or doing things they regret and that’s not helpful for anyone involved in the project. Instead, it’s important to take a moment, listen to the person’s explanation, and stay patient and open-minded so you can work with them to devise the best possible solution.”

Walton regards the ability to listen attentively to someone else’s perspective and take the time to truly understand what they are saying – and why they are saying it – as the most important quality any designer could have.

“Communication and collaboration are critical during cruise ship projects and listening to people properly the first time is the easiest way to ensure that you’re able to deliver something that meets and exceeds everyone’s expectations,” he explains. “Too often when someone is talking to us, we listen to the first few sentences, jump to a conclusion and immediately start preparing our response. However, if designers want to develop fruitful partnerships with clients, shipyards, contractors, product suppliers and other stakeholders, they must learn to consider everyone’s perspective to be as valuable as their own. Not only does this prevent conflicts from arising but letting everyone have a voice also provides the opportunity to bounce ideas around and develop bigger and better designs.”

Whatever the project, says Walton, it’s crucial to remember that great design is rarely achieved by one person alone. Instead, it’s very much a collaborative process where open-minded people share ideas and work together to achieve the optimal solution.

“Ultimately, we have to trust that everyone involved in the shipbuilding project has the same objective as Studio DADO: to create a vessel with the types of onboard spaces and amenities that will deliver the safest, most memorable and most enjoyable cruise experience to guests,” explains Walton. “Once you realise this, projects run much more smoothly, and everyone involved is happier and more fulfilled.

“I’ve been involved with designing passenger ships for more than 30 years and I can honestly say the cruise industry is more collaborative than any other sector. It’s special to see how everyone works together to overcome issues and produce amazing vessels.”

This article was first published in the Spring/Summer 2021 issue of Cruise & Ferry Review. All information was correct at the time of printing, but may since have changed.

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