Spotting the work of Adam Tihany requires initiation. This isn’t because his interior designs are particularly rare – far from it. Tihany’s work can be glimpsed around the world, from the blood-red, capillary-chic Aleph Spa in Rome to the crisp, clean lines of his Lutyens-esque Oberoi Hotel in New Delhi and the white, billowing ceilings of the Veranda restaurant in Kuwait City. The through line between these designs, though, is harder to find, which, in the end, is really the signature of the artist. The provenance of a Tihany lies in the viewer’s impression that the space they’re visiting is fundamentally new.

“I go to a lot of lengths not to repeat myself,” says the 71-year-old, who is much more interested in weaving a narrative through his designs, about his clients or their clientele, rather than stamping his own personality on any given project. “Most of all, I think we are very intent on telling a story, delivering an experience that has depth, that lets you remember it more specifically than other experiences.”

One is therefore not meant to easily forget a voyage aboard the Nieuw Statendam, Holland America’s newest vessel and the designer’s latest foray into the world of cruise ship interiors. The overarching theme uniting the swirling lines of his vision for the ship is what Tihany likes to call the ‘architecture of music’. Aside from endearing itself to the designer as a strikingly original – some might say surreal – concept for a cruise ship, it was also an opportunity for the interiors to “whisper and not shout the context” of the voyage, a chance for the spaces to reveal themselves slowly to passengers.

“It’s not about being obvious,” says Tihany. “It’s a story that unfolds as you live through the days in the ship. And you sort of make it your own, a little bit.”

Not to say that a heavy dose of the obvious has not also been thrown into the mix. This much is evident in Harps, a heavy steel sculpture wrapping its way around the ship’s three-storey atrium that Tihany hopes will give passengers the sensation of walking through a gigantic version of the instrument, like ocean-going Borrowers. Then there’s the ceiling cut-out in the ship’s concert space, the Queen’s Lounge. “The shape, the curve of the wood and the colour really represent a giant violin,” says Tihany. It’s hard to argue with that.

These quirky additions aside, there are plenty of subtler notes for passengers to discover on the Nieuw Statendam, not least in the great array paintings and sculptures contributed by over 90 artists in collaboration with curators ArtLink. Some works on the ship beg for interaction, like The Son of Man by Bernard Pras, who uses forced perspective to recreate Magritte’s masterpiece with found objects. At least one – Purple Swirl, a bamboo and paper sculpture reminiscent of a billowing sail torn loose in a storm – had to be assembled between decks two and three by hand. For Tihany, the inclusion of these pieces served to create narratives not only for individual spaces, but also fed into the grander story he sought to tell for the Nieuw Statendam.

“Art forces the story; in our particular case, the architecture of music,” he says. “And it clearly helps in bringing the spaces to life.”

“I go to a lot of lengths not to repeat myself. Most of all, I think we are very intent on telling a story, delivering an experience that has depth, that lets you remember it more specifically than other experiences.”

Cosmopolitan career

Adam Tihany was born in 1948 in Targu Mures, a small Romanian city in the Transylvanian hills. His parents decided their future was brighter in Israel, emigrating there in 1950 and bringing little Adam up in Jerusalem. After an unpleasant stint in the Israeli Army during the Six Day War, Tihany decided to leave the country for architectural studies in Milan.

In past interviews, the designer has recalled his shift towards restaurant and hotel projects as almost accidental. “In Italy, where I lived and worked, the architects would do anything,” Tihany told The New York Times; they simply couldn’t afford not to. It was during this period that the designer would acquire his dislike for being pigeonholed. “I discovered, to my dismay, that everyone wanted to define you. I said, ‘I design. Give me the problem and I’ll give you the solution.’”

“I am somewhat old fashioned; I believe that design is not about copy and paste, it is not about finding nice images on Pinterest and pasting them on a piece of paper and saying, ‘Oh, here we go.’”

Restaurants in particular afforded Tihany complete creative independence over every aspect of the project, from the shape of the space down to the tables and chairs. In 1988, as the designer was making his name designing the newest, most exclusive restaurants in New York, it was the service. “He is interested in waiters – who they are, where they come from, what they need to do their jobs, and what they need to be happy,” gushed a profile in New York magazine. “It’s this concern for every aspect of the business that has made Tihany the favoured designer for many of the city’s more knowing restaurateurs.”

This reputation would propel Tihany onto even grander commissions, from the Cipriani Hotel in Venice to the Mandarin Oriental in Manhattan. The move into cruise ship interiors came comparatively late in his career, when Seabourn commissioned the designer to refurbish the Encore.

“What tickled me here, working on cruise ships, is the fact that you are dealing with a captive audience,” Tihany explains. “They don’t come in for a meal or to sleep one night and then leave early in the morning. They stay on board for the length of a month, which means that I can fit them, as we say, on multiple levels on entry.”

The challenge for the designer, therefore, is simple: stave off boredom. And the key to that is weaving the unexpected through the ship’s interiors to make the voyage on board as much a discovery for the passenger as their excursions on shore. “It’s a big responsibility,” he says. “I need to write a story and create a script and find the actors and do everything that will keep you interested for an entire week – so, not simple.”

Responsible originalism

Tihany’s design for the Encore was praised for its smooth, flowing aesthetic, breaking away from the sharper lines of its sister vessels. Its colour scheme – replete with dark blues and browns, with a dash of mahogany panelling – was more reminiscent of a luxury yacht than a cruise ship. Even so, Tihany considered the design “evolutionary, not revolutionary”, according to The Telegraph, the better to encourage repeat custom from passengers. He’s kept the same aim in mind for the Nieuw Statendam.

“It’s an interesting psychological point, I think, and I don’t know if a lot of people give it some thought,” he says. “I keep saying, ‘Well, would the passengers come back to this space?’ And if they don’t come back to this space, what are they going to do the next stay?’

“My script starts with being that person that somebody puts on board of a ship, and I have to be there for one week. I can’t get out. Let’s say we’re seven days at sea. Would I be happy on the seventh day, or will I be totally miserable?’”

Appreciating these factors is easier, Tihany explains, in a smaller atelier like his. “We are craftsmen here, not production people,” he says. Designing the interiors of a new-build cruise ship is a complex undertaking, one that requires “time, research and imagination. It needs a lot of things that make the people who work with me quite unique, because they are very talented and accomplished.”

Working for Tihany also requires the same commitment to originality in design possessed by the man himself. “I am somewhat old fashioned; I believe that design is not about copy and paste,” he says. “Design is not about finding nice images on Pinterest and pasting them on a piece of paper and saying, ‘Oh, here we go, this is what’s going to look right.’ No, I believe design comes from your inner self and through a process of tradecraft.”

Tihany is careful to point out that he’s not singling out any larger design companies for criticism. Even so, it’s hard to imagine that a project as aesthetically and intellectually ambitious as the Nieuw Statendam would have sprung from any other atelier, let alone one with such a prodigious reputation. One might also be forgiven for thinking that the vessel might be his swansong – Tihany is, after all, in his early seventies. His enthusiasm, however, seems undimmed.

“I feel wonderful before we start, and I’m hopeful that I’m going to continue to be wonderful when we’re finished,” Tihany says at the start of the interview, before going on to discuss an upcoming cruise ship commission at its end. One suspects it will be just as original.