words Justin McGuirk
Your Qantas interior is quite luxurious, do you think the golden age of cheap democratic flying is over?
Ha, cheap democratic flying. No I don't, I think its here to stay. I mean, generally speaking, flying is cheaper than it has ever been. People complain about having to pay thousands of pounds for a ticket, but its still, I know from my experience of the industry, incredibly cheap when you consider how much it costs to operate aeroplanes.
Except in the last decade, I'd say we've had this extraordinary moment where almost anyone can fly anywhere in Europe for say anything from £9 to £100. And that's definitely over because you can't find those flights anymore.
And it was kind of absurd, really. It defies any kind of logic, you know, economically, how little money they make out of it. It certainly did nothing for the glamour of flying. I don't know many people who enjoyed setting foot on a budget carrier. I mean it always a miserable experience offset of course by the fact that you're hardly paying for it.
So, was the goal with Qantas to restore the glamour?
Well, we had an opportunity to do that with this new aircraft type. I mean it was such a kind of "one off" opportunity as they say. Something like the A380 comes along only once in a generation, the last time it happened was the 747 and for a designer it's a unique experience, when you get to work with a project like that.
You say you spend a third of your time flying. What is the first thing you wanted to change or improve?
Its so many things, but in order of priority, I guess its simply getting on an aeroplane and just feeling kind of nauseous because they look so awful. Just the prospect of getting on an aeroplane and having to sit there...awful stuff, knowing that it could have been done so much better. Well, I do that with everything, so its...
...A designer's neurosis?
A designer's neurosis, but its really compounded in an aircraft environment. This stuff could have been so easily made better and then of course there's the functional aspect. The reality is that, its interesting that you mentioned the fact that I travel a lot, aircrafts are designed by engineers, now there's nothing wrong with engineers, 80% of what we have done is engineering. But engineers don't travel. You know, the people that design aircraft interiors would be lucky to spend a couple of hours a year in an aircraft. So I personally don't feel that they are...
Well, uniquely placed to deal with those challenges. On the engineering level, of course they tick all the boxes, so that's why they look awful, they don't work very well, they're old and this is another issue of course, that most airlines don't have enough money to do anything. Beyond that, they don't have the desire to anything. I mean it's inherently an old fashioned industry which is a bizarre contrast to the latest levels of technology.
Was there anything that you simply couldn't improve because of factors out of your control that you desperately wanted to?
Yeah, you know it's very much a question of joining the dots, or avoiding the dots depending on how you look at it. The industry is governed by rules and regulations so there's sort of 5% creativity. You've really got search hard for ways of improving things and to change things because it's just so restricted.
Was there a particular bug bear of yours? A piece of cutlery or a plug or...
Well yes, plastic knives are a bit of a bug bear.
But you did fix that?
Well no, we still have plastic knives, but we've got the metal ones ready and waiting.
For first class?
Yeah, all of the ones in economy are plastic, but they're not disposable plastic. So yes, it's frustrating, but at the same time its kind of, part of my job, that's what designers do. We work to briefs. You've got to look at it as if it's a challenge as opposed to something that's restricting. I mean I have many opportunities in other parts of my work to cut loose and do whatever I want. In a weird kind of way, designing pieces for a gallery, which is really the opposite end of the spectrum, can be as complex as this because in a lot of ways I love parameters because I think designers need that and they feed off that. Maybe not the kind of parameters that exist in this world but its nice to be able to deal with it and its nice to be able to be exposed to it and its reality. It really is...and they offer really good reasons.
The Qantas A380 is built as a designer airline so naturally there is a need to foreground the designer, how comfortable are you in having to be in the limelight?
Yeah, I mean it's very bizarre. I wouldn't have thought six or seven years ago that it would have got to this point. Really its evolved in that way, it was never an engineered situation, like Qantas said "ok, this is your job, this is what you're going to have to do". We created this together, its partially my fault that I'm in this situation. I shouldn't really say it like that, its not an easy task.
No, I mean you might love it.
Well no, generally its not something that I necessarily see as my job description, having to do things like this, but increasingly it's a big project, it's a massive project I guess, giving the amounts of money that Qantas have invested. It proves to me that they've really kind of taken ownership of the ideas that this is about design. They really get it which is brilliant because so many companies that I've worked for, you do your thing and then that's it, see ya. That's the problem with design, that being a freelance designer, as opposed to someone like Jonathan Ives who works for Apple, I mean...he has his own unique challenges but there's a level of continuity. Designers like myself work with different companies day in day out, so you meet a whole new bunch of people all the time, so you have to set up new relationships with these people. You're stepping into a brand new environment and the chances are that you'll only do one project, or maybe more, but...
But this one has kind of taken over your life in a way, hasn't it?
Well yeah, it's taken over a big chunk of my life. Aviation really accounts for at least 50% of the work we do in the studio.
Have you got any other industrial design projects on the go?
Yeah, absolutely, quite a few in fact, so many that I cant remember them. There's mobile phones, packaging, clocks, one or two interiors, shoes...