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Aviation In the press
Come fly with me
New Design magazine visits the London offices of JPA Design and profiles the aviation design specialists.
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New Design Magazine
New Design magazine visits the London offices of JPA Design and profiles the aviation design specialists.

The discerning traveller expects luxury at every step: from the airport lounge, the business class seat to the hotel at the destination, they expect a premium experience. JPA Design has a proud record in work for each of these high-end sectors as well as in design projects across an airline’s fleet.

Transport and aviation design specialists JPA have offices in London and Singapore and work globally with airlines, hoteliers, and train operators to design better customer experiences. The consultancy’s most recent work includes a next generation business class seat for Singapore Airlines and the design overhaul of American Airlines’ on board product fleet refresh.

Founded in 1982 by the company’s now principal James Park, JPA Design’s initial transport work was in the luxury rail sector designing interiors for the Orient Express, the Royal Scotsman, and the Rio Grande Railroad. The step into the aviation sector came in the 1990s when JPA Design worked alongside Singapore Airlines in developing one of the world’s first aeroplane seats that converted into a flat bed. Over the last twenty years the company has added high-end hotel interiors and airport lounges to its portfolio.

Aviation projects are central to the consultancy’s identity bringing together expertise and experience in product design, interior design, architecture, and engineering. JPA’s longstanding relationship with Singapore Airlines has brought many prestigious design awards (Skytrax, Red Dot, and OAG) and established the company’s status within the sector. “At a conceptual and creative level we are the strongest team in the world for aviation work,” claims James Park.

Managing director Ben Orson, who returned to JPA after three years as head of industrial design at Zodiac Aerospace’s seat furniture division in California, argues that the blend of knowledge within the consultancy strengthens its provision to the market. “There are really strong synergies between luxury hotels and aviation as one individual will be experiencing them on an continuum, as such hotels are a constant frame of reference,” he says. “In terms of experience, I don’t think anyone can match what we’ve got here.”

In tackling a business or first class cabin project JPA starts from the understanding that a cabin is more than a collection of seats, it is a more holistic experiential environment and space for communicating brand values. “We look at the whole space of a cabin and the furniture within it rather than just the seat,” elaborates Park. “In the past an aeroplane cabin was not necessarily considered an architectural space and I think that is another thing that has separated us from competitors. We are beginning to look at things not just as an exercise in product design but as an appreciation of an entire space.”

Taking the example of the 2013 business class seat for Singapore Airline’s Boeing B773 fleet, product development and interior design was driven to a significant extent by the airline’s brand identity. “The icon of the Singapore Airlines brand is Singapore girl,” explains Park. “A large part of our consideration in developing a seat is supporting the interaction between cabin crew and passengers. For example, we have located the cocktail tray so that cabin crew do not have to reach over the customer and we have incorporated a light so that each drink has its own illuminated alcove.”

Addressing the design process, Orson explains that work will typically begin with pen and paper. “Normally we will start with a manual process, typically sketching,” he says. “Jobs developing a cabin start with sketching and will pretty quickly move into 3D CAD or foam model; we use most techniques you typically associate with industrial design. CAD work is generally carried out using a combination of Rhino and Solidworks.”

In order to allow a client to get a real sense of a cabin space, JPA designers like to move to physical mock up as soon as possible. “We’re very keen on mock up and have a great supply network and can get something done very quickly,” adds Orson. “We had a customer in the studio recently and we mocked up a cabin in our office in foam board over a weekend. A lot of companies will dive into digital stuff very quickly, we have a strong belief in mock up.”

In addition to cabin interiors, JPA has also engaged extensively in product development for the aviation environment. Working in collaboration with one of the industry’s leading manufacturers, Zodiac Aerospace, JPA developed the Cirrus premium class seat platform (2008). The product, which has proved an enormous success selling (and continuing to sell) thousands of units, was the first to offer direct aisle access in the business class cabin without compromising privacy. “It uses a herringbone pattern seating arrangement,” adds Orson. “It has been very successful and has become one of the archetypal arrangements.”

Furthermore, at the 2013 Hamburg Aircraft Interiors Expo JPA previewed a new business class seat that had been designed with aviation seat supplier Jamco. The product has not yet been formally released but promises to offer a unique configuration to optimise the use of space and improve passenger experience. “A business or first class aviation seat has a lot of functions – it’s a comfortable seat, also a dining facility, a work station, an entertainment centre, a bed,” adds Park. “If you roll those things together it becomes quite a demanding thing; it is an experiential object, not just a device.”

A sensitivity towards brand is increasingly coming to inform the relationship between JPA and an airline client. “Most airlines will have a well rounded sense of how they differentiate their product, in other words their brand. They will have a sense of how that will translate in terms of a particular aesthetic or a cabin service feel,” explains Orson. “One of the first things we do is try to absorb and understand that information to the best of our ability as we are typically asked to work with that material to provide something that’s fresh, relevant and also a recognisable articulation of a brand.”

Given this interest in brand it is no surprise that JPA’s involvement with a client will increasingly extend beyond seat or cabin design to other brand elements (including livery, service ware, signage and soft goods). In recent years JPA has designed pillows, mattresses, blankets and service ware for Cathay Pacific and American Airlines. Furthermore, with Gulf Air, JPA oversaw a deeper brand refresh that encompassed corporate identity guidelines and aircraft livery. As part of the project JPA sent a team of designers to Bahrain for a week in an attempt to understand more about its culture and the consultancy conducted a frequent flyer survey to get a sense of what passengers were looking for.

The relationship with Gulf Air has also incorporated the interior design of airport lounges for the Bahraini airline. The Gulf Air lounge at London Heathrow opened in 2011 (see New Design 88) featuring a contemporary design informed by the airline’s Bahraini heritage including architectural motifs from Bahraini forts and blue upholstery inspired by the colour of the Persian Gulf surrounding this island. The consultancy has also designed lounges for Air China, Singapore Airlines, and Oman Air, in each case attempting to subtly communicate a brand presence and an essence of the host airline’s culture alongside providing a comfortable and stress-free space for passengers. “The way that you should design for airlines is enshrined in their brand definition,” continues Ben Orson. “All of these airlines are by definition international players so we need a balance between what would appeal to someone who travels a lot and has an international taste and the host culture of the company.”

JPA Design includes a colour, material, and finish (CMF) design group that is engaged on various product development projects. The CMF group has recently designed a uniquely constructed high-end fabric that affords the exclusivity of leather but has the comfort performance of a fabric. “Leather has obvious quality connotations but does not allow perspiration through well,” explains Orson. “Where we see this material having particular value is in creating a high value fabric that you can put into a first class cabin and it won’t be outclassed by leather but will give you all the functional benefits of fabric, mainly that it is comfortable to sleep on which. given that all these products turn into beds. is of paramount importance.”

Whilst the majority of JPA’s work focuses on luxury experience (the consultancy has an impressive portfolio of high-end hotel interiors projects in addition to its transport work) which in the aviation sector equates to first and business class, the company does work across whole planes and whole fleets. “Our work that receives the most attention is clearly the work which you tend to find at the front of the aircraft,” says Orson. “Often we win work based on our abilities in the premium, long-haul aircraft and these cabins are a real playground to be creative within. Very frequently however, these airlines have regional or short haul fleets and we are asked to address these too. Generally the scope for radical innovation is reduced here but the challenge then becomes how to maximise the returns available on the scope that remains.”

Looking to the future Orson believes that prospects for the aviation design sector are healthy as the forecasted sales of airliners remains very strong. Within aviation design itself Orson explains that over the last ten years there has been a trend to differentiate through different seat arrangements and this is set to continue. He says: “As all of the technologies that combine to define the passenger space advance, so new opportunities to redefine the architecture of cabins present themselves; the value that we bring every time is knowing how to make these finite spaces work hard to deliver an outstanding passenger experience.” “Weight is also a huge consideration. Weight is fuel and fuel is money,” concludes Orson. “We have some IP on implementing a fundamentally different way of doing a seat’s structure and we see this as a new frontier for the industry.”

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