Exclusive Interview: Marc Newson on Qantas A380 Cabin Design

Marc Newson A380 Final Assembly Line Airbus Toulouse Award-winning designer Marc Newson A380 on the A380 Final Assembly Line in Toulouse

Award-winning designer Marc Newson was Qantas’ Creative Director from 2005 to 2014. He was responsible for designing the airline’s revolutionary Skybed in 2002, and later designed the entire cabin interior for the first Qantas A380 airplanes.

Away from aviation, his work is exhibited at New York’s MoMA, London’s Design Museum and V&A, and at the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris. He talks exclusively to iflyA380 about working on Qantas A380 cabin design.

Marc, you have said that designing the Qantas A380 cabin was the most complex project you'd ever undertaken. Can you tell us more about what you set out to achieve with this project? 

Qantas is one of the top airlines in the world, and the attraction of creating a customer product that was the best in class was huge. Qantas and I defined the A380 brief together. It was an opportunity to create a clear statement about the Qantas brand values through good design.

We wanted a cohesive look for the whole A380 experience – from the lounges through to the aircraft and all the products associated with it. A total design DNA. 

I spend well over 100 days every year flying, so I felt uniquely placed to address all the issues that had bothered me over the years – from aircraft seats and interiors to ambience.

Qantas A380 engine startup on tarmac at LAX Qantas A380 engine startup on tarmac at LAX

How important was it to find the right balance for all passengers?

My job was to look at everything in the cabin, the thousands of little details – most of which the passengers will never notice – and make sure that they were intelligently designed. 

Designing an aircraft is like creating a mini-world, you’re putting people in a confined environment and controlling how they’ll feel there through the amount of oxygen that’s pumped in, the humidity, and everything they touch and see. It all has an effect.

The brief included hundreds of different objects, including all of the accessories – trays, glasses, plates, cutlery, blankets, coat hooks, carpets, bathroom fittings, door knobs, reading lights, and so on – as well as fixtures, such as the lighting system and the highly sophisticated machines that double as aircraft seats. 

Most of these objects had to be designed in four versions, one for each class: first, business, premium economy and economy. So it was a mammoth task.

Qantas A380 Economy Class accessories tray glass plate cutlery © Fabrice Gousset Qantas A380 Economy Class accessories tray glass plate cutlery

The extra space on the A380 is one of its strengths. At the time you were working on a new airplane with completely new dimensions. You were starting with a blank sheet of paper…

The A380 offered a rare opportunity to establish the design language of an entirely new type of airplane, and one with more cabin space – 49% more, to be precise – than the veteran long-haul jet, the Boeing 747-400. The A380 was a chance to do something different with the interior. But rather than defining the design language of the Qantas A380’s interior in terms of how it looked, I focused on how the passengers would feel.

I began by analyzing every aspect of the cabin, however seemingly inconsequential, and calculating how they could best be configured to meet the passengers’ needs and to make them more comfortable. 

Woman resting A380 Qantas Premium Economy Class Woman resting in A380 Qantas Premium Economy Class seat

Most of that time was, of course, spent on the seats, which are the dominant factor in determining passengers’ comfort during flights, especially long-haul flights that plow through several time zones. I had designed numerous seats before, but an aircraft seat is an enormously complex piece of engineering, which is not surprising when you consider what it has to do – flying constantly to and fro 24 hours a day for 10 years. Airplane seats are among the most brutally treated and rigorously tested products you can design.

Your Qantas Skybed set a new benchmark for airplanes comfort and won many awards for its innovative design. Can you tell us more about that project?

obviously hoped that it would have an impact – if nothing other than I felt extremely well qualified for the job because I spend most of my life on airplanes and there were so many irksome issues around aircraft seating that I craved the opportunity to address. For the Skybed project I wanted that sense of privacy – I wanted that feeling of being in my own cocoon. 

Passengers sleeping Qantas Skybed A380 Business Class Passengers sleeping Qantas Skybed A380 Business Class

I was mindful of the fact that people sit on Qantas flights for up to 14 hours at a time – I wanted to create the comfort, privacy and sympathetic environment to make the experience of flying relaxing and even dreamy. 

What were some of the challenges in creating a seat that completely reclines?

The challenge was simply to be absolutely determined that the bed should be as flat and horizontal as possible while at the same time passing the severe testing and health and safety regulations. Space was gained through a reduction in bulk, providing considerable extra foot room.

Skybed was a real first in terms of the length and width of the bed, and in its pitch and the number of features it provided. And, in terms of the competition at the time, nothing else looked as good. It was an enjoyable experience because designing a seating program like that is a massive amount of work and you’re dealing with an isolated environment.

Finally, in what ways does your design for aviation influence your other projects?

In so many ways! The huge amount of knowledge I glean from every project feeds my inspiration for future projects in completely different industries. The skills, materials and technologies I have used have been brought to another project I am doing in a totally different industry. I think it is important for all industries to commission ‘outside’ designers to bring fresh eyes to any industry that is used to an in-house team of designers, such as the automotive, aviation and marine industries.

Having designed for many different industries, I learn about various technologies and materials all the time but in a different context. I am a great believer in cross-pollinization. There is no doubt in my mind that the aeronautics industry is behind the technological development of design – in terms of materials, software, and engineering.

Thank you very much for speaking with us.

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