For a sector that stresses the necessity of rapid evolution, of focusing on future trends to build bigger and better and brasher, the cruise industry’s relationship with interior aesthetics can be surprisingly retrograde.

Harking back to the ‘Golden Age of Cruising’ has become design shorthand for operators looking to project elegance, class and that most ambiguous quality of all, timelessness. The borrowing of elements, even wholesale transposition, from art deco or nouveau can be seen in recent projects such as Cunard’s Queen Elizabeth or even the Disney Dream, but the dialogue has a tendency to be somewhat inward-looking and self-referential.

While there is no doubting that results can be extremely impressive, even successful projects remain unmistakably maritime, taking classic cruise line design as launch pad and touchstone. So when one hears talk of a ‘Fifth Avenue’ dynamic and ‘New York-inspired living spaces’ in relation to cruise renovation, it marks a profound shift in ambition. The same design clichés are employed – elegance, luxury, timelessness – but the context and historical precedents have changed.

It is unsurprising that such a move should come from Crystal Cruises. The high-end operator has always prided itself on setting its sights beyond the competition at sea and looking towards leading shoreside luxury hotels as the real opposition. This requires investment, and the $25m renovation of Crystal Serenity earlier this summer was just the latest example of a policy that has seen in excess of $50m invested in its two ships since 2009.

"The high-end operator has always prided itself on setting its sights beyond the competition at sea and looking towards leading shoreside luxury hotels as the real opposition."

It’s a lot of money to spend, and one might think that such an outlay encourages a degree of risk aversion. Passenger numbers have remained relatively high in spite of the economic downturn, and a temptation to merely re-energise existing designs would be understandable. Even if some change was necessary, you would at least expect the project to be overseen by a firm with plenty of experience in such a large-scale dry dock undertaking.

So the choice of Toronto’s II By IV Design Associates marked quite a departure for both studio and operator, bringing in principal designers with limited cruise line experience. No one was more surprised than partner Keith Rushbrook. "You had to peel me down off the ceiling," he laughs. "It really was the last thing we expected to hear."

This is not false modesty. Rushbrook and partner Dan Menchions had flown to LA with the sole purpose of bidding for the penthouse, penthouse suites and retail commissions. Their relationship with Crystal dates back almost 15 years, when they were selected to design the retail space on the now defunct Harmony. It is a partnership the firm has maintained and grown over time, evidenced by their move beyond retail to work on the Symphony penthouse suites when it underwent extensive renovations two years ago.

"It’s been great to grow with Crystal and vice-versa," says Rushbrook. "I suppose you could say that our work on Symphony now looks as though it was something of a test, but it certainly didn’t feel like that at the time."

On edge

The morning after presenting their design concepts to Crystal, Rushbrook and Menchions received a phone call from Alexandra Don, vice-president for onboard guest services, requesting they meet for coffee. Although it is a personal relationship dating back to II By IV’s earliest days of working alongside Crystal, the duo felt immediately on edge.

"Being the insecure designers that we are I was sure it could only be bad news," Rushbrook reveals. "We met at the SLS Hotel in Beverly Hills and after 15 minutes of small talk I couldn’t take it any more, the experience was killing me, and I simply had to ask what was going on."

"Guests deserve more than a pastiche in pastels. Having sailed with Crystal myself I’ve seen their demographic getting younger, increasingly sophisticated, well-travelled and well-read."

Don revealed that after much discussion following II By IV’s pitch, it had been decided that as well as the penthouse and penthouse suites it was only right they also be given responsibility for all cabins and corridors.

"Dan jumped out of his seat and yelped with excitement," Rushbrook reveals. "My first thought was the scale of the job. We’d originally been talking about doing 140 cabins, but now we were looking at 540 in just two weeks. I’m not saying I wasn’t excited too, but it was pretty daunting."

But a lack of experience should not be translated as a lack of confidence. Rushbrook had a very clear concept in mind for the penthouse and penthouse suites, which he was only too happy to translate across a larger canvas.

"Guests deserve more than a pastiche in pastels," he declares bullishly. "Having sailed with Crystal myself I’ve seen their demographic getting younger, increasingly sophisticated, well-travelled and well-read.

"So many cruise interiors are either overly retro or garish and loud, using primary colours that overpower and date very quickly. We wanted this to be a soothing, calming environment; elegant and contemporary spaces not dissimilar to what one might find in a hotel on Park Avenue or Bond Street. That’s where I believe there can be a disconnect in cruise design, with operators only looking to sea for inspiration. Why not bring that land-based feel? Great design is great design, regardless of location."

Rushbrook believes it was II By IV’s experience of working in the hotel sphere that convinced Crystal of their ability to rise to the challenge, but acknowledges that it was a courageous appointment on the part of the operator. The 14-day project was not only by far his largest dry dock experience, but also the biggest Crystal had undertaken. The margin for error was minimal.

"I didn’t see any proposals from other studios but I do know that Crystal makes a habit of working with absolutely amazing designers," he begins. "It was extremely bold of them to make such an unexpected choice. We had never done anything on this scale before and there were times I was tempted to tell Alexandra that they were being crazy.

"Unless you’ve gone through such an intense process you cannot understand the pressure and adrenaline it creates. Contractors were literally getting off at one end of the ship as guests boarded, champagne in hand, at the other. On a land-based project, if you don’t quite finish today there’s always tomorrow. Miss the deadline here and the ship sails."

More of the same

Particular praise is reserved for the two main contracting companies, Sea Level and Mivan, both of whom Rushbrook says did a "spectacular job", and the designer is clearly still on a high having seen the successful realisation of his proposals in phenomenally quick time. In fact, the entire process has whetted the appetite for more of the same.

"It was right down to the wire," he chuckles, "but the experience was utterly amazing. Crystal may be our only cruise client, but having got this done we’re now looking pretty aggressively at partnering with other lines."

The new-look Serenity provides quite a calling card. Crystal penthouses have been furnished with entirely new soft goods, while deluxe staterooms, penthouses and penthouse suites boast floor-to-ceiling tufted headboards, new bedside cabinets, sofas, curtains and carpeting, not to mention state-of-the-art electronic appliances and lighting. The Apropos boutique facility has been divided into three selling spaces resplendent in rich Zebrano wood and herringbone rosewood, black-plum-magenta carpeting and tufted leather seating. The ship’s corridors have also been fully refurbished.

"Rushbrook cites the penthouse suite dining areas and panelled walling running from entry-door to veranda as two of the undoubted project highlights."

It is quite a progression in scale from II By IV’s initial proposals. Rushbrook cites the penthouse suite dining areas and panelled walling running from entry-door to veranda as two of the undoubted project highlights, but also insists that these original design ideas then imbued everything that followed.

"We knew how impressed people had been by the penthouse designs so it became a question of looking at how we could translate those themes across all cabins," he explains. "We wanted to create real drama, with dark walls and bright, crisp bed linens and a very cool patterned carpet underneath to ground it all.

"The corridors were a challenge; these long spaces not dissimilar to a succession of bowling alleys. We introduced door drops at the entrance to every suite, breaking up the space, and did the same on a much larger scale for the elevators. Looking along the space one can clearly identify where these points are, acting as a very subtle form of signage. By not having borders on the carpet and allowing the pattern to grow from the outboard wall the corridors have also been made to feel a lot wider."

The retail spaces have been similarly spruced-up and Rushbrook cites both the private sales area within jewellery retailer Facets and the massive sculptural aluminium screens installed against grey smoked glass walls in Apropos as sources of pride.

"There are so many elements with which we are extremely pleased that it’s difficult to choose just one," he says. "Perhaps the most pleasing thing of all was that we finished. Those last six hours, standing there and just breathing in the craziness as final touches were applied, is an experience that will stay with me forever."

It is also clearly an experience he would like to repeat sooner rather than later. The operator-designer relationship is not always the easiest, with both parties looking to stamp their authority and vision on a project. Rushbrook believes Crystal has set the bar high in terms of giving his firm the space to create, and is extremely clear on what he is looking for in any future partner.

"At this moment we are working on projects ranging from hundreds to hundreds of thousands of square-feet," he begins. "The one consistent thread is that the people we work with really want to explore design and allow us as designers the freedom to create within their brief. If there are operators out there that genuinely want to develop something fresh and innovative, bring it on!"