Design Works First Class Cabin You Had No Idea About

"A Rolls-Royce has more industrial parts than a First Class aircraft seat."

Singapore Airlines First Class

Unless your name is Drake or Federer, it’s likely that you’re not one to be getting around in First Class that often – and that’s fine because neither are we. What we did want to know though is the amount of work that goes into designing and building the ultimate First Class cabin, so we got in touch with Johannes Lampela, the Director of Design at BMW’s DesignworksUSA group to find out.

For the unacquainted, Designworks are the design brains behind Singapore Airlines’ First Class cabin which debuted back in 2013. During its launch the cabin was re-designed to offer passengers increased levels of luxury with the addition of greater privacy, stowage and luggage space. The seat itself formed the centrepiece as a lounge-like island which shielded passengers both visually and acoustically from the surrounds. It’s a task that’s easier said than done and this is how it was done.

Defining The ‘Elite Passenger’

Whilst specially upholstered seats lined with fine leather that increases tension intrinsically sounds nice, a lot of reconnaissance work needs to be undertaken before the thought of fancy design is even considered.

“It starts from the understanding who these customers are and what they expect out of this type of experience,” explains Lampela. “Going into the design process we use our own information on premium luxury as well as Singapore Airline’s own material and customer feedback.”

These customers are a minority which Lampela labels the ‘elite passenger’ – a discerning group of frequent flyers who hold the key to providing the perfect starting point for a memorable design-led experience. They’re also different to Business Class passengers in that they’re not there because of work – all First Class passengers “belong to the class to a level that they’d rather change their travel dates than change to a lower class if there’s no availability”.

So what do these elite passengers prioritise the most?

“The number one preference for flying First Class is seat quality and the quietness of the cabin of being in the front of the aircraft,” says Lampela.

Borrowing Premium Design From BMW, Rolls-Royce & Private Jets

Being a BMW group subsidiary has its perks. One of them is the ability to leverage knowledge from the premium transportation experience of BMW, Rolls-Royce and even private jet designs that these names have worked on in the past. Lampela raises one major obstacle that many wouldn’t have been aware of though.

“The commercial aircraft environment is quite challenging because most of the other luxury experiences I’m describing are actually owned by the user – a luxury car, a luxury boat or even a private jet.”

“What we often forget when we’re looking at First Class design is that it’s still public design. So you need to design it for durability and maintenance first, the wear and tear it takes when people are using it differently because it’s not their property.”

This is a monumental task as designers need to replicate the same quality and luxury of a personal product one would usually find in their home or vehicle. The answer?

“As much upholstered surfaces as we can,” says Lampela.

Selecting Materials That Supersede The Motoring World

Given the connection between Designworks and BMW, you’d be surprised to hear that Lampela doesn’t use the same grade leathers as those found in the German carmaker’s.

“We actually introduce higher grades of leathers, not necessarily the leathers we use in BMW but the leathers we use in private aviation; it’s a higher quality of tactility,” he says.

“We assume that these customers understand the difference and feel the difference. There’s an important quality to it that you need to design for the customer who can appreciate and recognise this difference.”

Standard Class Cabin Features

  • Plastic laminate surrounds
  • Hard surfaces throughout
  • Everything designed for durability and maintenance

First Class Cabin Features

  • Soft touch surrounds
  • Padding that replicates the feel of luxury automotive
  • Introduction of upholstered leather and quilted detailing
  • Headboard design which replicates the headboard of a home or five star hotel

Rules For Picking Materials

  • No off-the-shelf materials; Designworks custom develop everything
  • Carpets are custom made with a textile manufacturer
  • Textiles are custom developed for the seat
  • Leathers are custom tanned for the colours Deisgnworks want to introduce in the cabin
  • Laminates in the entry area are custom designed

It all sounds like a tedious task but the goal is to create a link to other luxury experiences that allows passengers forget they’re in a commercial aircraft. Lampela says that the materials selection stage alone takes longer than the industrial design process of creating the shapes of the cabin and seats. It takes an entire year to develop and certify all the materials.

Another surprising fact? There’s no sneaky BMW design elements in the Singapore Airlines First Class cabin. Or any Designworks cabin for that matter.

“We don’t inject our brand into their brand because we serve their brand. We want to elevate them through design. The main equity of Singapore Airlines is their brand’s service and we wanted to design solutions that enhance their service whilst bringing the flight attendants to the forefront of the visual expression in the cabin.”

Most Expensive Part Of A First Class Cabin

Arguably the most expensive component of any First Class cabin is the seat.

“If it’s an industrial product it’s produced on an industrial scale,” explains Lampela. “Even a Rolls-Royce has more industrial parts than a First Class aircraft seat because there’s so few of them in circulation, so it’s basically a handmade seat.”

What To Expect On First Class Seats

  • Handmade structures with minimal tooling
  • Lots of handcrafted products
  • Limited use of typical industrial design processes like injection moulding since production quantity doesn’t justify the cost of moulds

A typical First Class design process takes about three years from start to aircraft delivery. Lampela says that this particular partnership with Singapore Airlines was much shorter at less than two years.

“It’s quite unheard of in the industry. What we did to make it shorter in delivery time was leverage some existing structures. Where the previous and new generation of seats used the same under structure.”

So there you have it, the secrets to building the ultimate First Class cabin.

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