Not that many airlines are known for employing top flight designers for their aircraft cabins except of course Virgin Atlantic – well, they have employed us – and Qantas has had a long relationship with Mark Newson. I don’t think that Kelly Hoppen’s stint for BA counts. Mostly they employ the cool professionalism of the small number of design agencies that are specialised in the world of aviation. So was it a risk that KLM decided to take on the two most famous Dutch designers of their generation: Hella Jongerius and Marcel Wanders?
The new designs were launched early last year but we humble folk at Viewport had to wait for a give away sale on business class fares to the Caribbean (seriously it was £800, which we thought was a steal) just last month. Working on the basis that we could drink that value in free Champagne, we booked the tickets straight away and packed the Havaianas and the swimming trunks and headed off to Schipol airport for a 9 – ish hour flight to Curacao – we’ll let you know about Curacao later. The lounge although quite nicely designed was not a promising start – packed with people at 7am and not much of a buffet going on except for some pastries and cheese. And then the boarding process was a bit chaotic to boot. However the view of the 747-400 (City of Lima) on the tarmac in the foggy Dutch morning felt good. Even though the Jumbo Jet is now being phased out by most airlines because it’s a costly old bird to run, I still love it. And it’s pretty good to know that you’ll be turning left into the nose of the aircraft. Normally upstairs in the bubble is the best biz seat on board a 747, but because KLM does not operate a first class service, the business class cabin is split between the upstairs cabin and the nose. So our tip for KLM is to take the downstairs cabin of only 14 seats. And if you are travelling alone, try and snaffle that magic seat number 1A because it’s a solo seat and definitely the most private.
The design on board is top notch. Jongerius’ work is instantly recognisable, if you are familar with her work for Vitra. She is keen on combining a sense of craft with industrial design, and specialises in textiles. The seat is a customised version of the US B/E Aerospace Diamond range – Jongerius has streamlined the product and added some cool textural points mixing dark leather, aluminium, and the muted colours of the seat fabrics, which softens the impact of the large pale blue plastic seat surrounds. The flecked aubergine coloured carpet on the floor has been made from the recycled materials of old cabin crew uniforms. The silvery and cheap looking panels that separate the seats are the only duff note. And yes, the seat does recline into a super comfortable flat bed, for an aircraft at least. Apparently there should be some nice cushion covers as well, but on this flight, they were plain white. Maybe that was the reason for the discounted fare?
Introduced a couple of years earlier, is the table ware by Marcel Wanders. He appears specifically to have avoided a set that looks like a system. Each item is individually designed, and with some care. The service element has also been taken into account with useful heat resistant plastic chargers so that the crew do not have to wear big oven gloves when handing out the hot meals. From lightweight super thin dog bowls in which your salad is served, to scallop edged Delft china bowls for your fruit salad, to a sexy little cocktail stirrer, it is difficult to stop yourself slipping some of the items into your carry on. You do have to like the Delft pattern because it crops up on nearly everything – including the foil lids for your hot dinner. It does not seem to have quite the same sex appeal (or futuristic vision) as the Raymond Loewy design for the Air France Concorde, but it helps the overall mood that the food and drink is jolly good. And we put in a pretty good effort to down enough Nicolas Feuillate Champagne to justify the outlay on the trip.
The design elements of this KLM project are distinctive and successful, and also, strangely very Dutch in this highly globalised world of aviation. So if you are trying to offer a product to lure passengers away from the growing dominance of the Middle East 3 (that is Qatar Airways, Etihad and especially Emirates with its fleet of more than 50 A380s, 80 more on order), this might be one way to do so. Additionally the cabin crew were friendly and fun but professional, which you expect up the front of the plane, but don’t always get. Of course the bargain basement fare was the most persuasive factor for us.