Hotels on the High Seas: A New Era in Cruise Ship Design

Seabourn Encore

Spurred by rising expectations and newly intense competition, cruise lines go all in on world-class decor.

Last fall, Seabourn Cruise Line unveiled the Seabourn Encore, the latest ship in its fleet of ocean liners. And while it might not have been evident from its gleaming exterior, the ship represented a huge departure for the company. Instead of tapping a traditional cruise-ship designer to envision the vessel’s interiors, Seabourn chose Adam Tihany, a much-lauded veteran of hospitality design, whose roster of projects ranges from Thomas Keller’s Michelin three-star Per Se restaurant in New York to the Four Seasons Hotel Jumeirah Beach in Dubai. It’s not Tihany’s first time navigating these waters. He’s designed restaurants for Celebrity Cruises Solstice class, as well as most of the public spaces on Holland America Line’s MS Koningsdam, and was named creative director for Costa Cruises. But it was the first time Tihany was tasked with outfitting an entire ship, from stern to bow.

He’s not alone. Cruise companies have realized the value of creating environments on sea inspired by the best hotels on land—with comfortable rooms, luxurious spas, restaurants helmed by celebrity chefs—and, increasingly, are looking to interior designers and architects with impressive land-loving portfolios to help realize them. Celebrity Cruises has reportedly tapped both Patricia Urquiola—the prolific Spanish architect and designer who is the art director of Cassina—for its new Edge-class ships, set to debut in 2018. Urquiola designed the W Hotel in Vieques, Puerto Rico, as well as the Mandarin Oriental in Barcelona. “The evolution of cruise-ship design is quite similar to the evolution in hospitality design,” Tihany says. “Things are getting more unique and personal.” The Encore, for example, has 302 suites with interiors inspired by those of private yachts. This translates into spaces that seamlessly flow into one another, with curves replacing hard edges, as well as fabrics, carpets, and furniture custom-designed for the ship, a generous use of rich woods like mahogany, and carefully curated art.

That’s because the cruise business, like many others, is faced with having to achieve a delicate balance between courting a younger generation while not alienating its loyal clientele. And cruise-goers are an incredibly loyal bunch, often returning year after year and spending weeks at a time onboard. That makes these ships, in essence, floating hotels. The problem was they didn’t always look as good as their land-based counterparts. “For so long in the industry, everything had been heavily thematic and dated-looking,” confirms Greg Walton, a 25-year veteran of cruise-ship design and currently a VP in the Miami office of CallisonRTKL, a firm that has designed hotels such as Miami’s Mandarin Oriental. “The guest wants something better, something that they’d stay at if they were going to a great resort.” Walton was responsible for several spaces, including the penthouse suites, on the Regent Seven Seas Cruises Explorer, which debuted last summer marketed as “the most luxurious ship ever built.” The suites he designed have dining tables topped with mother-of-pearl, bathrooms with showers that have massage jets (hard to achieve in a ship’s low-water-pressure environment), and smaller, thoughtful touches such as velvet-lined drawers in the nightstands for jewelry storage. The top-of-the-line Regent Suite on the Explorer has mattresses handmade by Savoir and a Dakota Jackson–designed grand piano.

“You start looking at it from the perspective of how you would design a hotel, and then you back into all the things that have to happen for it to be a ship,” says Richard Riveire of the process. Riveire is a principal at Rottet Studio, a firm that has had a relationship with Viking Cruises since 2011, having worked on the design of its glass longships that sail the world’s rivers to its first-ever ocean-faring vessels. The firm designed the St. Regis in Aspen as well as the Loews Regency in New York, which is one reason Viking CEO Torstein Hagen hired the company. Riveire recalls: “I told him I’d never been on a cruise in my entire life, and he said, ‘I don’t want someone who has done cruise work. I want a hotel designer.’ We had a mandate to create something that looked different.” The Viking Star and Sea, and the two newest ships, Sky and Sun (debuting in February and November, respectively), are designed with a nod to the company’s Norwegian roots: blue, cream, and rust colors, and the extensive use of natural materials. They’re also the first ships to have a glass-backed infinity pool cantilevered off the stern.

Although the results appear elegant and effortless, a multitude of nonnegotiable restrictions need to be considered for a moving, vibrating hotel to traverse the world for 30 years. “Hotels are usually based on where they are, for a sense of authenticity and place,” Riveire says. “Ships don’t do that. So it’s a different design problem.” Tihany adds that challenges stem from factors such as the impossibility of making changes once construction begins, weight and movement limitations, and low ceiling heights. Those marble bathrooms you’ll find at every resort? Too heavy. What might look like wood or marble is most likely a very good imitation in laminate or veneer. Rounded edges will win out over sharp corners, and furniture has to have a certain heft so it won’t move or keel if the ship does. “Every millimeter is planned accordingly and has to be useful,” Tihany says. “They’re challenges that make you a better designer.” And they take cruising to a whole new level.