Designing for cruiseships can be immensely liberating. There is a wonderful sense of freedom that comes from working with a shipyard where the profile and size of a ship can be changed in days and by what seems to be the touch of a welding torch. Cruiseships offer a particular set of challenges; for the interior design profession the most frustrating are limitations of space, the use of a ‘reference vessel’ in the development design stages and the mindset of the cruiseship industry.


In a world where space equates luxury, RPW Design is used to working on hotels where public spaces are voluminous, restaurants and bars spill out onto balconies or gardens and operators aspire to an average guestroom size of 32m² for a four-star property and 50m² for five-star.

With the size of the average cabin much smaller than this in the equivalent star rating on a cruiseship, the first principles of the design process had to be readdressed. Everything in it, from sanitary fittings to fabric patterns, is scaled down to the environment; detail resolution is crucial.

RPW Design recently completed a full refurbishment of Spirit of Adventure for Saga Group. Carrying just 352 passengers, Spirit of Adventure is a yacht-like vessel, which left the designers with smaller scale proportions to play with, so the focus went on creating clean, contemporary nautical lines internally to mirror the exterior.

“So many ship interiors seem stuck in 1970s Las Vegas.”

The brief was to design a ship that would appeal to people looking for discovery and adventure from the cruising experience, and RW Design delivered a scheme that was luxurious yet comfortable.

The cabins are uncluttered, intimate and nautical while spacious public areas provide an informal and relaxed atmosphere.

With any refurbishment project designers are presented with a number of inherent challenges, from unsightly structural columns to tight budgets. With Spirit of Adventure the first job was to turn these negatives into positives. Tongue-and-groove detailing added to the ship’s structural columns transformed them into a yacht-like design feature.

For example, existing structural partitions within the restaurant, which had previously created a disjointed space, were transformed with sculptures and banquette seating to give a new dining experience. We also tried to maintain a consistent coordinated palette of materials, finishes and style throughout the ship with variations of colour weight being used to change the mood. Heavily themed rooms that bear no relation to each other are just not mature enough for this particular market.

An open kitchen gave vitality to the restaurant space and the formulaic train carriage seating was broken up with teak frames with stretched sheers to create a more intimate dining experience and incorporate architectural elements into the design. The nautical theme was reinforced by the choice of palette and fabrics, enhanced by small iconic details such as navy blue piping around crisp white linen in cabins, and navy and royal blue striped fabrics in the restaurants. This subtlety complemented the understated elegance of the design in a contemporary way.

“A simple touch like introducing blinds at the windows dramatically increases the available space.”

The perceived space of an area was dramatically increased by introducing lightly patterned carpets in the cabins and public areas. The discreetly striped carpets are a million miles away from their boldly patterned predecessors. A simple touch like introducing blinds at the windows dramatically increases the available space, while dispensing with the traditional bulky curtains throughout the ship created a more contemporary finish.

The colour palettes were mainly neutral to maximise the natural light available and allow the accent colours to stand out without overwhelming guests. The use of glass features to create natural divisions in public areas allows more light to flow within the space.

Teak-effect panelling seemed to be the natural choice for a nautical project. The panelling on the cabin walls added depth to the space without making it feel dark and overbearing; in public areas it created a look inspired by the casual upmarket beach resorts of the West Indies.

Guests should be able to maintain their individuality in public spaces. By specifying oversized seating and individual lighting in areas such as the library, they can create their own mood within a larger public space. Little details like this can turn an under-used facility into a selling feature.


The most challenging aspect was the use of a reference vessel as a means of setting a standard for the future development of a new ship. Can there be a more retrogressive way to produce a new ship?

As I approach 30 years in hospitality design there has been one consistent factor throughout a number of recessions and terrorism attacks that greatly affects the market: a steadily rising expectation from clients in the quality fabric of the interiors produced. Yet for cruiseships, the starting premise is to design to the standard of a ship already afloat.

“The increasing growth of the independent and design-astute traveller has created more sophisticated requirements.”

This is one of the root causes of cruiseship design being stuck in a time warp. In terms of service, quality of food and beverages and the holiday experience, the cruise industry has forged ahead, yet so many ship interiors seem stuck in 1970s Las Vegas, which is great if you want to be in Las Vegas, but the increasing growth of the independent and design-astute traveller has created more sophisticated requirements: the boutique hotel, the city break, and five short holidays a year instead of an annual two-week vacation. In an age of huge population density, space is the last great luxury.

With few exceptions, the cruise industry is reluctant to respond to this challenge. Thankfully, all the ship owners and operators that RPW has designed for have risen to the challenge of having a feisty and opinionated designer as part of their team.

We question all their assumptions, fight to extend an appallingly limited range of materials and finishes, and argue for the variety and design quality in cruiseship interiors that are expected on land.

The mindset we first encountered within the shipping community is slowly starting to change. Owners and operators need to question their own brand and draw inspiration from their land-based competitors.