2004 Annual Design Review Furniture Best of Category

“It’s an absolutely gorgeous piece of engineering, and much more fun, for the same price as something worse,” said Tihany. “It gives you the feeling you’re in a private plane.”

During the project’s hush-hush development in 2002, its in-house code name was Armadillo. PearsonLloyd and Virgin staffers wrapped its leather seats around honeycomb phenolic composite shells on raw aluminum frames. By rounding the seat backs, explained partner Luke Pearson, “We wanted to emulate the architecture and beauty of the plane—the hulls, the engines and wings, the incredible shapes. Aircraft travel has become so banal; we wanted to remind people that they’re inside something absolutely extraordinary.” They were also aiming for an anti-British Airways design: no flimsy protruding pleats, no flaunted gadgetry. The team’s other design inspirations include James Bond’s Aston Martins and Joe Colombo’s 1963 Elda chair in flared and cushioned fiberglass.

Albrecht called the suite “the 21st century’s Pullman car.” Couture added, “It becomes a real environment, instead of just a trough you’re supposed to slip into and be stored in for the ride.” But the highest compliments Pearson has heard so far have come from stewardesses: They now have to wake up passengers in time for landings.

Joe Ferry is head of design at Virgin Atlantic Airways. He is responsible for the new design and development of the cabin interior and on-board products in Virgin Atlantic’s fleet and manages the design of the airline’s uniforms and clubhouses around the world.

Q+A with Joe Ferry
Virgin Atlantic Airways Design Team

Virgin already has a reputation for luxurious service, why the upgrade?
The actual change order came from the CEO. The company’s marketing research showed that it was time.

What was your brief?
Make it flat, make it fast, and make it the best.

Stylistically, where did you look for inspiration?
We wanted to create an air of natural glamour, a sort of effortless, uncontrived chic. It wasn’t about calling attention to the design, or about making the cabin look good for its own sake, but about making the passengers feel at ease, as if they were in a very comfortable lounge. I thought about it in terms of a little resort because being in the cabin is similar to being around a pool. People are often dressed a little funny, they are doing different things, and everyone is on show.

What were some of the tricks you used to create that glamorous effect?
Lighting played a big part. We created boarding and departure settings for the whole cabin, as well as meal settings that are similar to what you’d find in a sophisticated restaurant. And by using gold washes, we were able to evoke ambiances of dawn or dusk. Whenever there is a change, the lights fade in or out slowly; there is no quick on or off; passengers are never jolted by brightness or suddenly left in the dark. We also chose materials that would reflect the lighting. There is a pearlescent gold flip panel that shimmers in the light, and the gold chandelier over the bar adds a bit of splash. On top of that, we worked in a little bling-bling with the leather bulkhead panel that’s inlaid with Swarovski crystals.

Many premium class cabins feature seats that recline fully. What’s different about the ones you’ve designed?
With combination seat/beds, you’re always compromising both the sitting and the sleeping positions. Our idea was to make them both really comfortable. When we got the innovation of flipping the backrest over—and it really was a kind of eureka moment—we knew we’d be able to offer a better experience. As it turns out, the flip mechanism enables passengers to take off and land in a reclining position because we integrated the airbag into the seat belt and so there’s no risk of “submarining”—that’s when you slide under the seat belt.

What was your biggest challenge in this project?
Getting anything on board an aircraft is incredibly difficult. There are all sorts of regulations on weight and durability. Everything has to withstand crash tests and fire safety standards. So we were very limited in terms of what materials we could use.

How long did it take to get the project off the ground (so to speak)?
I spent one year developing the idea. It was another 18 months before we—and it really was a very collaborative project—got it on board. It was a real buzz all the way through because of time and budgetary constraints. We had the innovation about two months before 9/11. And whilst the company was downsizing in the aftermath of that attack, which was followed by the SARS epidemic, it still had the bravery to push forward and invest in a premium package.

Client
Virgin Atlantic Airways, Crawley, West Sussex, U.K.
Design
VAA Design Team: Joe Ferry, head of design; PearsonLloyd, London; Softroom, London
Materials
Honeycomb phenolic composite, aluminum, leather, motors, wiring, upholstered foams
Software
CATIA, ProEngineer

The jurors sat rapt in visions of jet-lag relief as they watched the QuickTime footage showing plane seats morphing into dining alcoves, massage stations, and beds. The voice-over ticked off the product’s advantages over the competition: Virgin’s passenger pods are now one of the industry’s longest, widest, sleekest, and best stocked with hidden ottomans and storage crannies. The seat flips down into a bed at the push of a button. The table slides far back and forth in its slot, depending on how cozy you’d like to be with your breakfast or movie-watching guest. All passengers travel parallel; that is, no one’s feet jut toward anyone else’s head, and no one suffers the indignity of what the video narrator describes as “undesirable backwards-facing seats.” Best of all, the £50 million (nearly $90 million) design upgrade apparently didn’t affect ticket prices.

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