Simplify, Soften, Enrich: Hella Jongerius on Redesigning KLM’s Business Class Cabins

As if you needed another reason to plan a trip to the Netherlands, Utrecht- and Berlin-based Hella Jongerius recently completed an overhaul of KLM’s World Business cabins. Writer Nancy Lazarus recently got the scoop on the project.

Hella Jongerius
(Photo: Oliver Mark Photo)

“Humans dream of flying, of floating, and we have extra time on planes. So I wanted to have a place where passengers can dream, be at home, have a craft feel, and a human touch,” said Hella Jongerius earlier this week at New York’s Museum of Arts and Design (MAD). “For airlines it’s all about efficiency, but you also need tactility.” The Dutch designer, known for playfully integrating industrial design with craftsmanship, was interviewed by MAD drector Glenn Adamson on Monday evening in an on-stage conversation that focused on Jongerius’s redesign of KLM’s World Business Class cabins, a project she worked on for two years starting in 2011.

Working on high-end aviation design can be equally challenging and rewarding, according to Jongerius. “There’s lots of exhausting moments on planes when you can’t move around. But as a designer you can act and contribute to solving that situation,” she explained. “KLM was open to different approaches, and with business class we wanted to do extra things since it’s for luxury.” The interior redesign started with the curtains, carpets, and seat covers and expanded to include the seats. The new cabin rollout includes twenty-two 747s and fifteen 777 KLM planes.

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Hella Jongerius with designers Edith Van Berkel and Arian Brekveld. (Photo courtesy Jongeriuslab)

klm hellaThe complex process involved multiple entities with different perspectives. “KLM wanted something new, but not Boeing or Airbus. They have their own designers so it was harder to make changes. There were many compromises, but that’s typical of industrial design. Now we’re farther along with the program and we understand each other better,” Jongerius said.

The need to use existing materials represented one of many regulations and constraints, she added. Fabrics had to be tested to see how they’d withstand wear since the lifecycle of airplane cabins materials is around ten years. Pillows were most challenging since they’re washed daily.

“KLM is an international brand so the design didn’t have to have a national Dutch flavor,” she said. The airline, known for “KLM blue,” was willing to use other colors, like orange and green. Even though they were wary of using brown, Jongerius felt the palette needed “warm colors to celebrate the KLM blues.” The client conducted research to test customer reactions.

“The sense of comfort comes with the designs. I looked to create the feel of home and soften the space with materials and patterns and sprinkle dots for a poetic feel and to personalize it,” Jongerius explained. “I used patterns of hand-embroidered dots since they provide humanity and air so the materials don’t appear so hygienic.”

The designer put her textile imprint on the curtains, seat covers, and carpets. “On KLM you can look through the beaded curtain now between economy and business class. I wanted to have a more open feel,” she said. For the seat covers, in five different colors, she designed yarns and went to mills to start the weaving process. The carpets were recycled from old stewardess uniforms she heard about. She took them to a spinner who created new yarns.

For the seats, she wanted to give more privacy, since most business class passengers travel alone. The full-flat seat shape only worked with certain moldings, and she used fairly large movable dividers.

Jongerius observed that her corporate assignments complement her other design work. “I like working with clients and also doing experimental designs and series of objects,” she noted. “They provide oxygen and don’t involve product difficulties. I’m able to build up a library of experience with my own designs that helps with my client projects.”

Clearly the KLM experience has made an impression on her. “There hasn’t been much happening in commercial aviation for designers,” said Jongerius. “I hope all airlines take a designer, since there’s so much more we can change.”

Nancy Lazarus is a frequent contributor to UnBeige.