Legacy and tradition are words not always synonymous with cruise ship interior design. The emphasis is all too often fixed firmly on the future: bigger, bolder, brasher creations that celebrate the ‘new’ and would be almost unrecognisable to cruisers of an earlier generation.

Cunard does things differently. Since its acquisition by Carnival Corporation in the late-90s, this has been a luxury brand trading upon 170 years of British tradition. While other operators are often compared in style to the glitzy resorts of a Las Vegas or Miami, Cunard’s fleet has always drawn more from the grand five-star London tradition.

While hotels such as the Connaught, Claridges or Savoy have all stood for well over 100 years, Cunard looks towards evoking history within the context of an ultra modern fleet. Of its two ships currently in service, Queen Mary was launched in 2004 and Queen Victoria has been in operation since 2007. Queen Elizabeth will be delivered in September.

“I don’t want passengers feeling overwhelmed – this has to be a series of spaces where they’d be happy to spend 30 days at sea.”

Emphasis therefore lies squarely upon the interior architecture transporting guests to an earlier age and the woman with overall responsibility for this is Teresa Anderson, Cunard’s VP interior design. She acknowledges the tangible debt paid to the ships and designers of yesteryear, but is adamant that deriving such inspiration must never come at the expense of modern comforts.

“Just as the first Queen Elizabeth was one of Cunard’s greatest, we have sought to reproduce her elegant style and configuration,” she says of the latest project. “I was looking towards creating spaces with crisp elegance and a sense of grandeur, but it was also necessary to incorporate a few modern twists to stop it becoming overly stuffy or austere.”

Glamour and intimacy

This must be a difficult balance to strike when working on a vessel with an eventual capacity of over 2,000 passengers. Queen Elizabeth’s interiors, both an evocation of and homage to the art deco period, certainly translate into a series of authoritative, almost masculine flourishes, but their creator does not believe this negates the need for softer touches.

“Luxury and glamour are fundamental,” she says. “But intimacy is equally important. I don’t want passengers feeling overwhelmed – this has to be a series of spaces where they’d be happy to spend 30 days at sea – and glamour can be created through quiet, understated sophistication. It’s the responsibility of the designer to avoid austerity and intimidation at all costs; on both Queen Victoria and Queen Elizabeth our priority was always comfort and warmth.”

This often meant subtle departures from the deco style as and when it proved incompatible with 21st century demands.

“I would study pictures of furniture from the period and a lot of it seemed exaggerated or over-designed,” Anderson explains. “I wanted chairs people could relax in and enjoy a good cup of tea without being struck by a corner. Comfort must come ahead of everything else; what is the point of the most beautiful bar stool in the world if you cannot sit in it and hold a cocktail at the same time?”

Such modern departures must remain subtle, however, with guests having very particular expectations when they board a Cunard ship. With 170 years of history to live up to, the balance lies in creating a tangible narrative without descending into ‘theme park’ aesthetics.

“Passengers want to be reminded of the past; that sense of nostalgia,” Anderson explains. “Deco can sometimes be very geometrical and hard edged; we have included a lot of sweeping, curved elements – the grand staircases and balconies, for example – and there is an array of elements and interpretations of different styles on show. I didn’t want to exaggerate details or involve fussy ornamentation; art deco provides the inspiration, the basis, and then it’s a question of building on that.”

Lessons from Queen Victoria

While Anderson continually evokes the spirit of the original Queen Elizabeth, which sailed under the Cunard banner between 1940 and 1968, much of this new build will be instantly recognisable to connoisseurs of its sister vessel Queen Victoria. The interior arrangement is almost identical, although some lessons have been learnt from its first three years of operation.

“With 170 years of history to live up to, the balance lies in creating a tangible narrative without descending into ‘theme park’ aesthetics.”

Queen Victoria was the first Cunard liner on which Anderson worked and the experience has clearly stood her in extremely good stead. “With there being such an affinity between the two ships it made it so much easier,” she says. “Understanding the proportions, the processes we have in place and the interaction between different departments and ourselves, that has all been made much smoother by having gone through it before. But I have used different designs in terms of carpeting, fabrics, furniture, art, lighting and so on. Queen Elizabeth certainly has her own distinct personality.”

Much has been learnt from the way people utilised these spaces onboard Queen Victoria, resulting in some alterations in diameter and use. The Café Carinthia lounge area on deck two, for example, has been expanded, offering much more seating and seeing the secondary bar area moved to deck three.

Deck three’s grand lobby and Midship bar, a name borrowed from the original Queen Elizabeth, has also undergone a transformation.

“That area needed to explode,” says Anderson. “It was perhaps slightly too self-contained before. Some of the high columns found on Queen Victoria have been removed and we’ve introduced beautiful railings. The piano has been moved inboard and the lounge area expanded. The space has been completely redesigned and this is where Queen Elizabeth will be truly celebrated: cabinets will house memorabilia from the original liner alongside an array of art deco artwork. Decorative backlighting will increase intimacy and warmth. I really see this becoming a destination for passengers.”

Elegance and style

Pushed on what her proudest achievements might be, Anderson concedes that there are certain areas with which she is particularly pleased. The two-deck Queen’s Room, featured across all of Cunard’s ships, is already recognised as one of the finest spaces at sea and its re-imagining onboard the line’s latest vessel has clearly thrilled the interior designer.

“It will be a great space for dancing, with balconies overlooking those on the floor below,” she explains. “The architecture may be the same as on Queen Victoria, but the furnishings and certain architectural elements have been changed: deco style grills added to the balconies, backlit design and magnificent chandeliers. The feel is quite different.

“I’ve also always been very proud of the Queen’s Grill and Princess Grill restaurants in the middle of deck 11; both are cantilevered, so if you are sitting by the windows you get the most wonderful views of the ocean. Again, it is a question of balance: luxury with comfort. These are some of the warmest, most welcoming spaces onboard as well as the most exclusive.”

Carpets and flooring

“The Grand Lobby and Midship Bar have been completely redesigned and this is where Queen Elizabeth will be truly celebrated.”

The major differences will lie in the furnishings and fabrics used. Anderson and her team clearly undertook a huge amount of research ahead of setting to work and nowhere is this more visible than in the work done on carpeting throughout the ship.

“I had a lot of fun designing the area rugs,” Anderson says. “They are handmade and found in special areas such as the Grand Lobby on deck one and the entrance to the Grills. I went right back through the history of art deco, experimenting with different styles and shapes, looking at what had been used in other disciplines, such as metalwork and glass. When it comes to fabrics in the deco style you have to consider strong colours. Beautiful patterns, of course, but if the shades are too soft it becomes impractical. You need warmth and boldness; strength and elegance.”

Having such choice at one’s disposal shows how far the industry has come since Anderson first found her sea legs working on Crown Princess and Regal Princess in the late-80s and early 90s. Back then, the scope for creativity was more muted.

“There were only two types of vinyl in four or so colours to choose from,” she says. “The safety limitations were a real challenge. Now, the range of certified fabrics is staggering. The scope for creativity has never been greater and that creates a challenge in itself; every new ship comes out with ever more sophisticated touches and we are all trying to out-do one another. It pushes designers to come up with new ideas and I really do believe we are living through a golden age in that respect.”

Classic design forever

Anderson argues that the industry in general is beginning to reflect a trend among landside resorts that eschews excessive glitz in favour of something more refined. Nevertheless, what Cunard delivers is something else entirely; is she a believer in timeless design?

“Oh, absolutely,” she says. “Having no visible beginning or end; that is what all good design must aspire to. Yes, we have been inspired by the art deco of the 1920s and 30s, but the themes never go out of date: glamour existed at Cunard’s creation, it had existed centuries before and it still exists now. Timelessness certainly exists.”