The interior design of aircraft cabins is normally dictated by two things: weight and durability. Details have to meet strict engineering guidelines, and above all, have to endure years of baby puke, spilled food, and all other forms of accumulated human grossness. So it’s safe to say that most designers aren’t worried about what a particular fabric will look like in the air as opposed to on the ground.
It’s actually not as nit-picky as it sounds: The light conditions above the cloud cover are unlike anything on Earth. To test options for KLM’s newly unveiled business class cabins, Hella Jongerius, the Dutch textile legend, carried dozens of fabric swatches onto KLM flights with her Berlin-based team, studying them closely in the chilly light of 35,000 feet. "The light condition above the clouds and the light temperature makes all colors very red," Jongerius told Dezeen. "We had to really work in that sense so that the red goes out of the color palette and so we chose colors that have a bit of green in them."
Jongerius and her team ended up basing their choices on KLM’s deep navy, then building a palette of browns and maroons to complement. The sleeping pods are each a different color—a detail that’s meant to give passengers a sense that this is their own space. It’s also a bit of a wink at a cabin design by the famed Dutch architect Gerrit Rietveld, who designed a multi-colored concept for KLM back in the 1950s (it was deemed “too radical”). According to the New York Times, Jongerius came upon Rietveld’s concept while researching the company’s history. “It was very nice to see a designer working on a corporate project, yet remaining true to their own vision,” she said.
Jongerius’s design is an interesting response to an amazingly narrow brief. Without the free reign to rethink the structural design of the cabin or sleeping pods, she and her team were relegated to selecting textiles and rethinking the fold-down tables. The cabins have none of the high neon glamor of Virgin Atlantic, or the cutesy branding of Neil Denari’s work for Peach Airlines. They do, however, have plenty of lovely details: a smattering of tiny perforations in the aluminum tables, designed to evoke the Milky Way; or a random dotted pattern on the sleeping pod surfaces, adding texture. The carpets themselves are made from recycled KLM flight attendant uniforms.
It’s been a long time since anyone talked about air travel and luxury—or even glamor—in the same breath. Jongerius’s design doesn’t attempt to resurrect either. Instead, she’s focused on enhancing what will always be cool about flying: glimpsing the night sky above the north pole, say, or watching sunrise miles above Earth. “Flying is magical,” she writes in a statement about the project. "The primary objective [is to] offer passengers the greatest possible comfort, so that they can use their airborne interlude however they prefer: to work or to dream, unplugged from everyday life.”