Most cruisers these days do not know Albert Ballin. But without him, the modern industry would be inconceivable. It was this German shipping magnate who first developed the concept of the ‘floating hotel’ – the idea that, in their dizzy extravagance, ships could be just as alluring as their landlocked cousins. Ballin, moreover, was a man who practiced what he preached. In the heyday of his power, around the turn of the 20th century, he shaped his ships into places of paradise, hiring renowned designers and installing rococo stairwells in his ballrooms. Ballin’s Augusta Victoria, launched in 1888. It even boasted a reception court, choked by a forest of soaring palms.

If cruise ships began the 20th century as artistic masterpieces, they finished with a little less grandeur. With traveller demographics changing – as seafaring aristocrats were replaced by less discerning package tourists – ship design changed too. Combine this with stricter fire regulations and it is easy to see why wood-panelled ballrooms and rococo stairwells disappeared from cruise interiors. In their place came linoleum floors and fake gold bathroom taps. As one insider noted of the 1970s, cruise ships were no longer stages for ‘high-society drama’, but modest vacation spots open to all. This era of the cruise ship is represented in US shows like The Love Boat, a 1980s TV drama featuring bawdy romances and canned laughter.

Yet, with the global interior design industry set to grow by $24bn during 2021–25 and enjoying a compound annual growth rate of about 4% (according to a report by Technavio), the pendulum is shifting once more. Influenced by the best hotel design onshore, and spurred on by insights from designers themselves, cruise ships are once again beginning to resemble the floating palaces they started out as. More than that, designers are crafting elegant, subtle spaces, tugging guests closer to the sea and surf that surrounds them. Yet, with fire rules as strict as ever, much depends on the ability of designers to build natural experiences from the unnatural materials available. And despite the new enthusiasm for stone and wood, uncertainties remain about whether this unaffected mode can translate into a genuinely sustainable style, even as it evokes the planet in all its variety.

Sea views

If anyone can explain how cruise interior design has evolved over the past few decades, it is Sebastien Flamant. The Frenchman began his career in hotel design back in the 1990s, before partnering with cruise operator Ponant and shifting his attention to cruise ships. And as the designer says, he soon discovered that cruise design had become “quite similar” to that of hotels.

“You have high-end luxury ships – or hotels – where the place itself is just as important as the destination.” Flamant, now owner at Flamant Interior Design in Paris, is not alone in thinking this. “I think the hotel business has made an impact on the cruise ship interiors,” notes Malvina Guarnieri, design director at Tilberg Design of Sweden, another maritime-focused design firm.

This shift is easy to understand. With distinguished hotel designers like Adam Tihany and Christian Lacroix revolutionising their professions onshore, it was only a matter of time before these same principles learned to swim. Not that today’s floating hotels are simply facsimiles of the Augusta Victoria. Guarnieri, emphasises the modern connection between design and the “natural environment” beyond. Certainly, this is of a piece with the latest tenets of hotel design. From treehouse lodges in the Amazon to mud-brick hotels in the Omani desert, natural materials are increasingly being conscripted to give properties a sense of place. That is echoed, Guarnieri adds, by the drift towards offering guests, landlocked and seaborne alike, a calmer atmosphere – one that encourages them to relax and focus on life beyond their cabins.

Beyond the aesthetics, moreover, there is the feeling that change is also pushed by the type of person who takes cruises. Just as the decline of wealthy plutocrats presaged a move away from grand rococo staircases, so too has the revival of luxury cruising involved a more tasteful use of materials. If nothing else, this is reflected by the numbers. According to work by Access Cruise, an industry consultancy, the luxury cruise market is expected to double over the next nine years, by 2027, providing berths for nearly 1.1 million passengers. That is especially true, of course, for bespoke operators like Ponant, offering cultural highlights on bijou vessels. Hosting everything from arts tours in the Adriatic to trips past Mayan ruins, no wonder travellers on the French line want similar sophistication when they climb back on board.

By design

Visit the Laperouse, a Ponant ship usually found stalking the wilds of northern Australia, and you will soon discover something remarkable. Descend below the waterline and you will see it – the walls like coral, the lighting murky and dark. This is the Blue Eye, a multi-sensorial underwater lounge aimed at evoking maritime life in all its splendour and mystery. Flamant partnered on the project with Jacques Rougerie – and the legendary oceanographer’s influence is clear. Visitors to the Blue Eye can gaze out through a pair of portholes, shaped like the eyes of a giant whale, towards jellyfish and other aquatic marvels. Inside, they can sit on sofas like sea rocks, sipping cocktails as the sea shudders up their spines. This is more than just a metaphor: sub-aquatic music literally vibrates through the sofas in unity with the ocean.

Given all this, it seems fair to agree with Flamant that the Blue Eye, in its full-hearted embrace of natural life, is “completely extraordinary”. Even so, it is far from unique. After all, operators the world over are taking similar steps to immerse passengers in the world about them. MSC Cruises, for instance, has worked with De Jorio Design, a Genoese firm, to develop spas that look and feel like seaside cliffs. Tilberg Design of Sweden, for its part, has helped Norwegian operator Hurtigruten on the decor of the Fritjof Nansen. An expedition ship, the vessel weaves its way through mountain fjords and icebergs. More to the point, Guarnieri explains, these environments deeply influenced the final design. “How nice it is for a passenger to be on an excursion all day, in close contact with nature – and then come back and be welcomed by a cabin which has the same tones, textures, and ambience that they experienced outside.”

Unsurprisingly, building spaces that believably evoke life beyond the gangway requires careful technical planning, especially given how secure modern ships have to be. The Blue Eye is a good example. Portholes, for instance, are typically built above the waterline, which protects them from leaks and other breaches. To get round this problem, Flamant says that his colleagues reinforced the Blue Eye’s windows – rigorously testing their integrity against tonnes of steel. Employing natural materials can go a long way towards bringing an artificial space alive. No wonder, then, that the Fritjof’s interiors are flecked with birch, oak and wool. Stone features too, something new technology makes far easier to implement in practice. As Guarnieri points out, this means rocks can be thinner and lighter, ideal for floating hulls on violent seas.

Hot property

That last point is worth reflecting on. For if lighter stone is one way of bringing nature to design, other challenges are more difficult. Again, this often comes down to safety. In place since 1914, and regularly updated, the SOLAS Convention prohibits use of certain materials. Fair enough: disasters like the 1990 Scandinavian Star fire – which killed 158 people – show how quickly blazes can race through flammable bulkheads. It is clear that both Guarnieri and Flamant take these provisions seriously. The Frenchman speaks for them both when he says “we have to comply with regulations”, no matter how arduous.

Once again, technology helps, with designers able to mimic natural materials with less flammable alternatives. Though they may look and feel like coral, the walls of the Blue Eye are actually made from artificial materials. Guarnieri makes a similar point, explaining how her colleagues can swap rare woods for plastic laminates, or else only use wood where it will get noticed. Inevitably, too, these trends bring up ever-present arguments around environmentalism. Could natural stone tables and woollen blankets help cruising do its part for the planet?

Certainly, this is not immaterial in an industry where over 40% of leaders value sustainability – and when the majority of Americans do too. Guarnieri, for her part, is not sure. Though she is an enthusiastic advocate for natural materials in principle, she equally warns that extraction and transportation both come with costs. “We have to be conscious,” she emphasises, “about the full line of production – from manufacture to concept, to installation.” Yet like Flamant, the Italian is nonetheless convinced that refined, hotel-inspired cruise design is here to stay. “I hope passengers will not lose their curiosity around exploring new environments,” she says. “My sense is that there will be much focus on individuality.” Given the increasing thoughtfulness of many customers, this feels reasonable, even if rococo stairwells and artificial palm groves seem unlikely to return.