Carnival Cruise Lines was launched with a converted transatlantic ocean liner by the American entrepreneur Ted Arison, who set out to realise his vision of making a holiday experience once reserved for the rich accessible to the average person. Some 33 years later, Arison’s dream has long been a reality, and Carnival is the largest cruise line in the world.

If he were still alive today, Arison would probably be the first person to acknowledge that a vital part of Carnival’s huge global success is due to the skill, dedication and imagination of his fellow American Joe Farcus. Farcus, 61, recalls how he first got involved with designing ship interiors.

“I’ve always been interested in drawing, since I was small kid. The first book that I saw on the subject was a little British publication called How to Draw Merchant Ships when I was about 12 years old, and I started drawing ships from that book.”

“Passengers are there to have a good time, and the interiors of the ship have to encourage, not deter that feeling.”

When Farcus left school he trained as a traditional architect designing buildings. “It was a fortunate event for me that I met Ted Arison and got involved in the renovation of the Mardi Gras, Carnival’s first ship,” he says. “While I was working for another architect I got involved in a much more serious way with the renovation of his second ship, Carnivale. I left the architect and made a pitch to Ted when I heard Carnival were going to buy another ship, the SA Vaal, which later became the Festivale. He gave me my start with the refit of that ship and that began my career in shipbuilding. Carnival has kept me busy since 1977.”

When Farcus began working on Festivale he bought as many books as he could about the old liners. “I particularly remember a series of books that gave me photographic views of the interiors of many big old liners,” he says. “The idea of their opulence, the ability to create a special environment – not necessarily repeating those environments – and an interest in first class interiors really appealed to me and has been the driving force in the work that I have done.”


According to Farcus, any person who books a cruise is buying into the concept of the romance of the sea, whether they realise it or not. “The basic reason for taking to the sea I don’t think has changed,” he says. “It’s real, not a market-driven idea created by some marketing genius to make people feel a need for something they don’t really want.”

But it is a modern-day take on the old-style romance that passengers are really looking for. “While nostalgia for the liners is attractive, nobody would want to have the real experience of those past days: ships without stabilisers, plumbing that was marginal, no air conditioning. Passengers want the feeling of living in an environment and experiencing service that is at a level higher than they experience in their normal life – and it’s affordable. That’s been, of course, one of the key successes of the cruise industry.”

Recent years has seen the growth in mega ships, which does not sit well with Farcus’s vision of what a cruise should look like. “These floating island concepts, which are basically a hotel block on a huge barge, I don’t find appealing. I think people want something, no matter how big it is, to look like a ship and to feel like a ship.

“Everyone goes on board for the same reason – the sea. But to make the ship a special place, you have to look at your market and the tastes of the majority of the people that are going to be on your ship.”


Understanding the different markets that cruises are targeting plays a large part in designing interiors. So, how does Farcus differentiate between designing a ship for Carnival, which is mainly for Americans, and Costa, which is mainly Europeans?

“It’s merely the sensibility,” says Farcus, who has designed around 50 ships, “how you go about solving the same kind of problems, taking a different point of view, understanding that the lifestyles are different, and creating something that suits that market.” Collaborating with the various departments of the shipping company is crucial to the success of the design.

“The cruise company does the programme on board and determines what the experience is that their crew offers to the passenger,” explains Farcus. “I have always worked very closely with the staff of the shipping companies to make sure that my designs do not do anything to hamper what they want to do to culturally to make the ship what it’s supposed to be.

“I spend a quarter of every year in Europe; I’ve been all over and have a pretty good feel of what’s expected there. And I grew up on Miami Beach, which has always been a tourist town, and I think that has given me an edge in this idea of entertainment architecture that I do for the leisure industry.”

“Any person who books a cruise is buying into the concept of the romance of the sea, whether they realise it or not.”

On any ship there is a wide range of people – men and women, old and young, and all the personalities that create the variation. “I believe that the ship itself has to reflect that in an eclectic design where every room has a completely different kind of feeling from the rest of the rooms,” says Farcus. “This thematic concept is what I call the central idea that gives me a basis around which all the designs are built so that it’s one cohesive artistic expression, even though it’s made up of a diverse set of designs that initially may not look as if they don’t go together at all.”

On a big ship especially, that variety evokes the excitement expected in a holiday city. “That creates a kind of vitality for me. I like that, and that’s the way that I design,” he adds. “Also, it allows these various people to find different places within the ship that are more appealing to them than some other area. When they have something to latch on to like that, it makes the things that are unfamiliar more comfortable.”


Judging by the results, Farcus has long understood what cruise passengers want, and is not averse to adapting popular culture and history to create thematic areas on cruise ships. Could he be the cruise industry’s answer to the other noted dreammaker Steven Spielberg?

“In the end, I’m designing a ship that I would like to go on,” says Farcus. “Yes, I’m into popular culture and history as well as design, but it’s not all popular culture, it’s not all history, and some of it is just pure personal design. That’s a part of the mix and part of the vitality I’m seeking to create. The enemy of having a good time and an enjoyable experience on a ship is boredom. And, like Steven Spielberg, I want to get as far away from boredom as possible.

“If every room on the ship is beautiful but the same, within a day or two you’ve seen the whole ship. And no matter how beautiful it is, there’s no more excitement, no more discovery. A ship isn’t a museum, People aren’t coming to sit in a lounge chair and look at the beauty of the room on a continuous basis. Passengers are there to have a good time, and the interiors of the ship have to encourage, not deter, that feeling.”

Creating a beautiful atmosphere is very personal to Farcus: “I believe in what I do. Nobody tells me what to do, and nobody gives me marketing studies or anything of that nature. I’ve been very fortunate as an architect to have carte blanche from first Ted Arison, then Micky Arison, and then Pierre Foschi.

“My job is to satisfy my client within my own talent and ability. Even though I may be working for Costa or Carnival, the real client is the passenger. So I put myself in the position of trying to see the ship from their point of view.”


In recent years the job of the interior designer has been made easier with the introduction of new technology and materials. “One of the great things that has happened over the years is lighting technology, which has allowed us to create many interesting effects, and is an important part of what I do,” says Farcus. “Nowadays, we’re using quite a bit of LED lighting and that has been a phenomenal improvement. First of all, it produces very low heat, which is excellent for a ship because of the air conditioning.

“Secondly, there’s a lot of flexibility in terms of what it can do in comparison with other systems. Thirdly, the price of it has gone down because there’s more of it in use, which has allowed a wider spread of LED.”

“On a big ship variety evokes the excitement expected in a holiday city.”

The use of computerised lighting has increased dramatically and allows the designer to create interesting atmospheres on board. However, one of the challenges of using certain materials is that the rules of safety have continually increased to the point when almost every material that goes on board a ship has to be certified, and comply with IMO regulations.

“But there are also advances in that area that allow us to do certain things,” says Farcus. “We still use some traditional materials that were used even in the old liners from the beginning of the twentieth century – gypsum, for example, creates fancy designs, moulding shapes. The problem with that is that it’s heavy; the blessing is that it’s considerably fireproof.

“We’ve gone into using resins and some new materials that are much lighter, achieve the same effect and are certified to be fire safe. It’s a combination of technical non-architectural materials like lighting, sound and theatrical systems as well as architectural materials that have been developed to better conform to ship-building safety rules, as well as traditional materials like marble, granite and wood.”


It could be argued that Farcus has one of the most interesting jobs in the world. The impact of his designs on the world’s cruise industry and its customers over the past 28 years is incalculable, and thoughts of retirement are still a long way off.

“When I was in my late 40s I was thinking about the concept of retirement,” he says, “but the only way that would come into being is if I felt I wasn’t doing good work. If I’m doing the work that I think is right and if the people who hire me believe that as well, then I’m going to keep going as long as I’m physically able.”