Sylvain Mariat is the Head of Creative Design at Airbus Corporate Jet Centre (ACJC). He says that when it comes to cabin interior design, boils down to satisfying the customer. However, there is no getting away from the fact that form follows function
Mariat is both designer and engineer by training. He understands the balance between aesthetics and function that challenge all cabin designers. “The cabin is very complex,” says Mariat. “However, my objective is good aesthetics.” He points out that as long as the engineering aspects of the cabin are understood, time is not wasted on creating designs that are just not workable from an engineering perspective.
“We, as creative designers, also have to have the skills to communicate with the engineering teams. We do not always speak the same language,” says Mariat. “We, as designers, have to try to improve the technical aspects of the design as well as the look of the design itself.”
Mariat has now seen the design process through from the very beginning through to delivery. In fact Two Mariat cabins are now about to be delivered. “When I start a project I create a trend board on which there are no images of aircraft; rather the images are of hotels and house interiors,” he says, adding that it is his job to guide the client. He says that also the client tends to know what he does and does not like, he often finds it difficult to express what these wants and needs. “My job is to help the customer to choose what is in his mind,” he says.
For example, ACJC has recently delivered a private aircraft with VIP interior to a Chinese customer. This particular customer wanted rounded edges in synch with the principles of Feng Shui. This customer, says Mariat, wanted his interior choices to match his culture.
Details are important, but the overall impact is what hits you first about a VIP cabin and this is often heightened by appropriate lighting. Mariat explains that ACJC takes cabin lighting so seriously that the interior completion centre uses a mood-lighting designer who specialises in this very area when very complex lighting is requested. “Lighting is a very important part of the design,” he says. “You can change or destroy the whole design with the lighting.”
He adds that before materials are used, they are tested to see the impact of lighting on them. This enables Mariat to judge how the materials are going to perform under different types of lighting – cool or warm – before they are incorporated into the cabin design.
The materials themselves are at the crux of an interior design. Yes, they have to look good in all circumstances; but they also have to meet stringent fire retardancy regulations and not add too much weight to the cabin. They also have to be appropriately durable and fit for purpose. “This is a very complex area,” he says. “When we meet the customer for the first time,– they tell us they want materials like they have seen in a hotel or in their own home.”
This means that the materials discussed are often not yet tested and ACJC only has a very short time to get them through their testing process. And let’s not forget, we are often talking about very short runs of materials that have to go through lengthy processes in order to meet fire retardancy standards, and still look and feel the way the client chooses. This is a tall order.
“There are two tests we have to perform,” says Mariat. “The first is a fabric heat test to prove that the fabric can withstand heat for a specific time and there is another heat test performed on the foam inside the seating.”
From soft furnishings we move on to the technical aspects of the cabin. Of course today’s aircraft cabins tend to incorporate a plethora of entertainment and communications gadgetry, all of which has to be hidden and discrete. “The customer always wants to have installed the latest system available but we have to keep the system invisible. On the one hand, we have to incorporate more and more systems; but on the other, these systems are becoming smaller and lighter. It is balancing itself out.”
Mariat says that ACJC has a philosophy of keeping supplier lists under control, although he often seeks out new suppliers working in the luxury sector that he likes to try out. Ultimately, he says, inspiration for interior designs tends to come from outside the aviation industry. “Often, our customers will talk to us about their yacht or car interiors, so for this reason I visit the Monaco Yacht Show, I go to car exhibitions and I am in contact with automotive designers. We cannot design a VIP cabin as if it were an airline premier cabin – the two cabins are completely different. A VIP cabin is fully tailor made and a premier cabin is more industrial.”
When asked at what point creative design (aesthetics) and engineering (safety) clash and whether Mariat has to talk through these issues with the client, he responds that this is rarely discussed with the client because usually an alternative approach can be suggested that meets both the client’s and the engineering department’s imperatives.
Ultimately, says Mariat, the secret to VIP cabin design is that form should follow function. There have to be some aeronautics in mind but, ultimately, ACJC’s wish is to have a very satisfied customer.