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How Interior Jet Designers Take Creativity Soaring

We spoke to a CEO who designs luxury planes for a living.

by Catherine Chapman
Oct 23 2016, 12:05pm

Larger cabin surfaces present more creative opportunities but too much clutter can result in uncomfortable design. Photo: Kestrel Aviation Management

With strict baggage weight restrictions to abide by, long security lines to stand in and expectations of a crying baby or a reclining seat, there is often little comfort to be found in air travel. But for those who can afford the approximate $300-$400 million for a bespoke Boeing 787, flying 40,000 feet above ground can be a luxurious, bespoke experience, requiring integrated design.   

Stephen Vella is the CEO and Founder of Kestrel Aviation Management, an aviation company whose 15-year partnership with Pierrejean Design Studio in Paris, has allowed them to move aircraft interior design away from cookie cutter cabins and into personalized, harmonious spaces that still adhere to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) safety and regulation standards.

The Creators Project spoke to Vella to see what design principles were behind creating the perfect mood for flying.

The Creators Project: What is it that you guys do at Kestrel Aviation Management?

Stephen Vella: We’re designing a space so that when a passenger sits down they don’t want to get back up because they have everything ergonomically, whether it’s a water bottle, laptop storage, or whatever. Where do I hang my jacket? Where do I put my loose change? We’re all about all this immense attention to detail, which is very subtle and 90 per cent of people won’t see it. But they’ll experience it. We look at the design from the eye of the user.

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Inside the toilet facilities of a private jet. Photo: Kestrel Aviation Management

What are some of the ways in which you do that?

We try to use a multisensory experience to create a calm space. If you’re going to get on an airplane for 17 hours, for instance, you want a place where you can unwind, whether that’s to do business or chill. We do that through color and light, noise debasement and humidification, all these things that give you an ambiance where, when you get off the airplane after a long period, and you’re going to be in good shape.

But your private jet designs are often client dependent, so how do you create this calm space while still reflecting individual style?  

With a lot of clients, I go to their house because a house can say a lot about who someone is and what they want to be. I had one individual who had a very Scandinavian approach to architecture, externally and internally, and color choice. It’s like an apartment, it’s very personal, and a place where you should feel good about yourself.

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A bedroom fit for the air. Photo: Kestrel Aviation Management

But designing that way can’t always be so easy...

Well then I’ve had other clients, particularly from the Middle East, with homes filled with dark furniture, like browns and reds. You have this circular tube, which is very constraining, and you don’t want to put in dark oppressive colors like that.

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This ‘textured gong’ located in an aircraft corridor was complimented with contrasting wood grain. Photo: Kestrel Aviation Management

Designing an airplane interior seems a bit more complicated than home design.

It’s very long winded. Our product cycles are minimum two years, more often than not three, because we need to go and select the airplane and get it built and delivered. Then comes the interior designer, engineering, manufacturing, and installation. It’s an integration process, which is quite interesting, because it’s very technical but also very artistic. 

And you also have various safety relations to follow. 

On flammability, the regulations are amazingly strict, which means that anything we use on an airplane has to be burnt to destruction. So if I’m creating a seat from scratch, all we buy is the metal frame and the electrical actualization system and then build up the form and upholstery with different types of foam and leather. We make samples and send it out to the laboratory for them to set alight and find out how it burns and it needs to burn slow enough so that a person can get out of the airplane if there’s a fire. If a sample burns too fast, you have to go back to the drawing board and use different flame retardant or change your foams until you get it right. 

This reminds me of the Emirates Boeing 777 crash in Dubai, where all 300 passengers survived the resulting fire.  

And that’s a testament to the rigorous nature of the regulations, how they’re applied and good design.

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Photo: Kestrel Aviation Management

But some of these calming designs that we are talking about are reserved for the uber rich. Similar to, say a piece of couture fashion, is there a chance that the high-end interior designs of airplanes will trickle down to the commercial travel?

Yes, this will eventually trickle down to business class and you see it in the frontend of Qatar Airways already. You don’t see it in North America as much but it’s coming. Air Canada and Delta have embraced it because they are beginning to understand that if they don’t compete with the Middle Eastern carriers they’ll lose market share of premium traffic.

Learn more about Kestrel Aviation Management’s work here


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