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INTERIORS: Challenging the cabin orthodoxy
Certain seating layouts seem to be so commonplace now that there is a temptation to assume they have been around for decades.
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Certain seating layouts seem to be so commonplace now that there is a temptation to assume they have been around for decades.

But no matter how widespread it now is, the fact is that the reverse herringbone seat pattern adopted in so many of the latest business-class cabins is a relatively new arrival.

Its inception was marked by the arrival in 2009 of Zodiac Aerospace’s Cirrus seat, which was a design effort led by London agency JPA Design.

Founded some 32 years ago, JPA started life as a firm of interior designers, but has since diversified into other areas. It has since made a name for itself in the transportation sector, not least in aviation.

Prior to the Cirrus seat – more of which later – JPA forged its reputation in aviation with its work on the business-class cabins of Singapore Airlines’ Airbus A380s. “The first A380 that ever there was,” as JPA managing director Ben Orson puts it.

Although it had worked with SIA before the arrival of the superjumbos, it was that project which “gained [JPA] a huge amount of attention” and acted as a significant catalyst for the business.

The relationship with the airline has continued, too, with recent projects including a revamp of the A380 business-class seat and the development of a new seat for the premium-economy cabin.

Orson describes the former project as “a root and branch re-engineering around the basic architecture" of the seat. The market has responded well, he notes, with it winning the best business-class seat at 2014’s Skytrax awards.

"Singapore invested in refreshing it and it immediately re-established itself," he says.

Meanwhile, for Singapore’s premium-economy offering, an entirely new product has been developed in conjunction with Germany’s ZIM Flugsitz.

Orson says the combination of the three parties – JPA, ZIM and the airline – has led to a stronger end-product. “What we have achieved there compared with a lot of other products [in the category] is outstanding,” he says.

American Airlines is another high-profile customer, with JPA having performed nose-to-tail design work on the carrier’s “flagship” Boeing 777s and 787s, as well as its three-class A321 Transcontinentals. The A321 features a first-class cabin in a 1-1 configuration, a business-class compartment with fully lie-flat seats and a regular economy cabin. “It was,” says Orson, “a remarkable aircraft to work on – it was a lot of fun."

The 777s gained a unique feature through the use of Boeing’s new Premium Arch door 2 entryway. This was slightly modified using a laser-cut panel to create what the carrier calls the Star Field ceiling and which joins the two halves of the galley together. This creates both a striking entrance to the aircraft and a stand-up in-flight bar. “It is a heavily customised piece of furniture that looks fantastic,” he says.

Orson describes it as “one of the highlights of the project”, creating an entrance that was stylish “rather than seeing something that looks quite functional”. After all, he notes, “you don’t enter a hotel through the kitchens”.

Other recent projects include “nose-to-tail” customisation work on Air China’s 747-8Is, which Orson says was particularly rewarding. "It's a great aircraft to work on because it's so iconic. The space inside is really interesting with the stairwells and the shape of the nose,” he adds.

As well as the airlines, JPA also counts the airframers and the seat vendors among its clients. While he cannot talk about much of its work with the aircraft OEMS – it tends to be, he says, “exploratory” in nature and therefore not for public consumption – its seat design activity is well publicised.

The Cirrus model was developed after Zodiac came to JPA seeking a contemporary business-class offering. The result was an entirely clean-sheet design that popularised the reverse herringbone layout that is now offered by most high-end seat manufacturers. It debuted with US Airways in 2009 and now sits in the business-class cabins of around 15 airlines.

The company continues to work on new seats too. It is currently partnered with Japan’s Jamco – a company more usually associated with interior equipment such as galleys – on a business-class seat. "They recognise that seating is a valuable market to enter,” says Orson. “It's similar to Zodiac in that they came to us and said: ‘Here's a market we want to get in to, how do we do it?’"

He is reluctant to be drawn on details of the seat – which is on display on Jamco’s stand – but says the collaboration, which has been ongoing for three years, is "at a very exciting stage".

Feedback from potential customers has caused it to refine the product slightly, he says.

"It's a bit of a step change. What we are showing this year is really very different. The basic architecture remains the same but every other feature is reimagined.

"When it launches it will modify the way people go about making seats for planes,” says Orson.

One trend Orson has observed in the market in recent years is the increasingly blurred boundaries between the different classes of cabin. When premium economy first arrived on the scene, it "was a distinct product" offering a larger screen, more space and better service, "but we have seen some instances now where it's just a standard seat with slightly more pitch".

Most seat vendors now have a premium-economy seat in their ranges and "you can see that evolution happening quite quickly”, he says.

In fact, JPA performed a quick analysis of the market recently to identify the number of distinct seat types and arrived at a final figure of 15. "You look back 10 years ago and you could count them on the fingers of one hand,” he says.

"It's down to airlines and design companies to have the vision to drive that forward," he says, attributing the ongoing innovation to firms responding to gaps in the market.

Innovation, of course, is not restricted to the core of the seat; the overall cabin aesthetic is an area of rapid change, too. JPA employs an in-house team dealing with colour, materials and finish, which takes its cues from the wider interior design industry.

Orson points to the “very interesting things happening” in this area, where materials are also found to have a secondary function. For instance, one company is offering a copper coating that is also mildly anti-bacterial. “It’s a fabulous finish and it looks wonderful, but if you touch it then it won’t amass bacteria over time,” he says.

Copper, albeit with a solely decorative purpose, has been used to striking effect on SIA’s latest business-class seat, following identification of a trend for the metal in interior design around two years ago.

You might think that possessing expertise in interior design and similar skills for the more functional space inside an aircraft are poles apart, but Orson believes the two are complementary. “When you walk into a cabin, in a sense you are walking into an interior – we have a very good sense of what means for a brand and the sense of theatre that’s possible,” he says.

Even the positioning of the drinks tray and the light above it has been carefully considered, he says. “It’s a simple interaction, but one that provides the set for this kind of theatre to happen and happen in a way that reinforces the whole experience.”

One further area of research is the attempt to gain more space in the cabin. “For a long time the real estate on a plane has been phenomenally valuable, so everything we do is set against a backdrop of being space-efficient,” says Orson.

But, he points out, “once you are sat down there’s an awful lot of space between you and the [overhead] bins.

“Wouldn’t it be great to tap into that either to use that to get more people on board or to provide passengers with a more pleasant experience?”

JPA had examined the possibilities of more efficient use of space for several customers around 10 years ago but the concepts were never commercialised. Other rival designs emerged more recently but also never made it into production. “They were quite fanciful – interesting ideas but not taking into account the real-world requirements of passengers or crew. Which is a polite way of saying they won’t work.”

To some extent, work on maximising the use of the vertical space has already taken place. For instance, the Zodiac Cirrus seat utilises the room above the person behind to accommodate the upper body and elbows of another passenger.

Further development, however, would take that a step further and place sleeping passengers one above the other. The key, of course, is in ensuring passenger buy-in. “What characterises the work done recently is that as a passenger you don’t even notice,” he says.

Other features such as privacy screens can be installed to “diminish the sense that you are sleeping above or below somebody else”. The space gained will allow airlines more efficient use of the volume inside the business-class cabin while passengers get an experience that “compares with the most luxurious”.

It all sounds good on paper – but will it catch on? “I’m convinced that it will become a quite developed trend of seat design,” Orson insists. And with his track record, you wouldn’t bet against it.

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