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The Challenge: Styling a Superjumbo

August 25, 2008

By Alice Rawsthorn

Sometimes designers set out to create something gorgeous. Sometimes it’s an environmental coup, and sometimes a technological breakthrough. Often their goals seem more mundane, like wrestling with the laws of physics to shave an inch off the width of the back of the cheapest seat in an aircraft.

“It doesn’t sound like much,” admitted Marc Newson, who tackled that very challenge when designing the cabin of the A380 double- decker “superjumbo” jet for the Australian airline Qantas. “But it’s mindbogglingly difficult, and that extra inch makes a big difference. It could save someone from having to bend their knees throughout a long-haul flight.”

Slimming down the cheap seats by a few centimeters was one of hundreds of design challenges faced by Newson’s team in its work on the Qantas A380, which is now being prepared for its first flight to Sydney next month and to start commercial flights in October. Its interior looks more restrained than those of the first airlines to have unveiled their A380s: Singapore Airlines with its first-class suites, and Emirates with first-class showers. Qantas has spurned such showstopping features in favor of a sprucely futuristic style, seating as many people as comfortably as possible in the confined space of the cabin.

After decades of conservatism in airline design, the A380 is an opportunity to do something different for the simple reason that it has 49 percent more cabin space than its arch-rival, the Boeing 747. When Airbus, the A380′s manufacturer, unveiled its plans for the superjumbo, it depicted it as a flying pleasure palace with bars and spas. Yet Qantas and most of the other airlines to have ordered the A380 have allocated much of the extra space to more seats. There are 450 in Qantas’s A380, against 412 in its 747s. “Our job is to look at everything in the cabin, all of the thousands of little details, most of which the passengers will never notice, and to make sure that they’re intelligently designed,” said Newson.

A freelance designer with studios in London and Paris, the Australian-born Newson has worked for Qantas for six years and is now its creative director. After developing a new business-class seat, he was commissioned to design the A380 interior, as well as a first-class lounge at Sydney Airport. Newson is best known as the record-breaking star of the “design-art” market for sculptural furniture, but devotes most of his time to industrial design commissions, which have produced his most complex and intellectually demanding work. Qantas is Newson’s biggest client, and the A380 interior is not only his most ambitious project so far, but among the most accomplished.

The brief was to accommodate the maximum number of passengers – and to do so comfortably – in the limited space and artificial environment of a long-haul jet. If that wasn’t tough enough, Newson’s team had to navigate super-strict safety regulations, and the logistical labyrinth of a multinational industry with a unionized workforce in airports all over the world. “It’s unbelievably complex,” he said. “There’s fire testing, crash testing, and all of the health and safety issues relating to objects used 24 hours a day, seven days a week. If you alter the shape of a plate, you may have to alter the tray, and the carts, which can get you into massive logistical issues.” To make things even harder, he was working on a new aircraft while it was still being built by Airbus in a process plagued by delays.

The easiest part was deciding how it would look. Newson opted for a sober version of the visually luscious “retro-futurist” style he developed in the early 1990s, which has since become the default style for wannabe-cool bars. The shapes in the A380 are gentler, and the colors calmer. Beige for first class, and earthy shades of red, orange and green for the rest, accented by a honeycomb mesh pattern on the carpets and seat backs. All of the accessories – doorknobs, dining trays, bathroom fittings, and so on – are styled in what Newson calls “the old airline aesthetic” (although some Australian travel blogs have slammed it as too austere).

Yet the design language of the Qantas A380 is defined less by what the passengers see, than by how they feel. Given that flat beds, cashmere blankets and every other airline “innovation” are instantly copied by the competition, Newson has tried to distinguish Qantas’s superjumbo with intelligent detailing. This involved the old-fashioned design process of analyzing every component of the cabin to identify how it could best be made and laid out with the latest technology.

Giving economy passengers a few more centimeters of legroom is a prime example. The seats in first and business class are bigger than in Qantas’s 747s, but barely so in economy and premium economy. The only way to compensate was by making the seat backs slimmer. Newson’s team did so by developing a lightweight carbon fiber shell with Recaro, the German manufacturer, which used similar technology in seating for Formula One cars.

Among the other details are bassinettes with state-of-the-art upholstery to help babies sleep more comfortably, and, instead of the customary metal footrests, mesh ones that stop passengers from sliding forward. In first class, there’s a small screen next to the big one, where you can see the map of the flight while watching a movie, and a control pad on the seat backs so the cabin crew can switch off the lights or close the shutters without stretching across sleeping passengers.

Then there are the light-emitting diodes (or LEDs) that illuminate the cabin. They’re pre-programmed to wash the interior with subtly different colors that change throughout the flight. Each shade is selected to create the ideal mood for sleeping, waking, eating or whatever, regardless of time zone.

“Designing an aircraft is like creating a mini-world,” Newson said. “You’re putting people in a confined environment and controlling how they’ll feel with the oxygen, humidity, and everything they touch and see. It all has an effect.”

Originally published by The New York Times Media Group.

(c) 2008 International Herald Tribune. Provided by ProQuest LLC. All rights Reserved.