Interior design is a tricky business. Cruise lines are forever striving to outdo one another in breaking boundaries and offering unique guest experiences; yet, at the same time, each must maintain a clear brand identity and at least some elements of fleet continuity.

Striking the right balance between these two seemingly opposing forces is often difficult. Frequently, it boils down to a simple decision: should the cruiseline enlist the help of an external design firm? And if so, how much control over the different aspects should each party have?

"Deciding whether to involve a company from outside really depends on the scope of a project," says My Nguyen, deputy director of interior design at Holland America.

"If we have a dry dock coming up with an opportunity to upgrade some public areas with a little cosmetic work, that’s something we would most likely do in-house. But if it’s a larger project where we gut the centre of the ship, take it down to steel and put in a brand new concept, then we’d bring in an external firm."

For cruise lines, hiring a professional interior design team brings an influx of fresh ideas, along with a new aesthetic sensitivity and practical expertise. Such skills can prove invaluable in turning an embryonic concept or theme into a brave new physical reality. The challenge, however, is to blend the external firm’s abilities with the operator’s final vision.

"You have to know when you can take people out of their comfort zone so that it will benefit them, though not to the extent where it derails their brand."

"As long as it’s clear who does what, you don’t get into any problems," says Nguyen. "We meet with the design firms, sit down, and say ‘this is the project, these are the parameters and this is the goal’."

A working relationship

Before joining Holland America in April 2013, Nguyen was a designer for NB Design Group. The role involved working for the cruise line she now belongs to, giving her an excellent ability to develop harmonious relationships between Holland America and external designers. Along with her core philosophy of ensuring each party has a clearly defined role, she is also a great believer in open dialogue and a collaborative approach.

"It’s not about ego; it’s about how well we can produce whatever the project is. To that end, I like to work collaboratively," she explains.

"Design is always better if you work with someone rather than just having one idea or vision. It’s a creative process. When you have a good relationship with design firms, it’s really wonderful to start with an idea, to hear different thoughts and then to come up with a solution.

"You also have to know when you can push the envelope – to take people out of their comfort zone so that it will benefit them, though not to the extent where it derails their brand," she continues. "That is not something that can be successfully attained unless you have developed a good working relationship."

She goes on to describe how the refurbishment of the Explorer’s Lounge on Holland America’s Amsterdam was largely a result of a successful collaboration. Untouched since new build, the lounge needed freshening up – though Nguyen also wanted to maintain the "classic element".

After discussing Holland America’s vision, the external designer picked up and worked with the idea, with Nguyen’s team periodically touching base to ensure the design was heading in the right direction. The final result – a carpet with a map and compass-rose in the centre, along with various other updated materials – turned out precisely as Holland America wanted: a perfect combination of old and new.

"Usually, the lead designer from the external firm sits down and has an open conversation with whoever is in charge of the project," Nguyen explains. "It often involves someone from Marine Hotel, as well as the people representing interiors and operations – they all work together to accomplish the project."

While Nguyen was able to establish an effective working relationship with her chosen design firm and guide them towards her vision for the Explorer’s Lounge, there are others within the industry that have developed a far deeper, more long-term bond.

Keith Rushbrook, co-founder of American design firm II BY IV Design Associates, has spent more than 15 years working with Crystal Cruises, and was responsible for the award-winning refurbishment of the line’s Serenity vessel. Such a long and fruitful relationship has led to Crystal placing a huge amount of trust in II BY IV’s design expertise.

"I was once in a factory in Milan choosing the final fabrics and colours for a Crystal vessel, and I was swinging between fabric A and fabric B," Rushbrook recalls with a chuckle. "One of my colleagues from Crystal was with me, so I asked her which one she thought was right. She put her phone down, looked at me, and just said, ‘Keith, you’re the designer’.

"They don’t try to overrule you. They really allow us to design. Obviously, if it’s an amazing success, that means we get all the credit. And if it’s a disaster, it’s entirely my fault."

Instead of putting more pressure on both parties, this trusting relationship seems to allow II BY IV and Crystal to relax a little more – both are comfortable with and confident in each other. For the cruise line, it saves a significant amount of time and staff resources. For II BY IV, it means greater creative freedom.

Rushbrook believes that the foundation of this successful relationship is his own deep understanding of Crystal’s brand. He has sailed with the line more than 40 times, in a professional capacity and as a guest, and makes sure he stays on top of cruises planned for forthcoming years. This allows him to forecast the line’s guest demographic and tailor designs accordingly.

"We started working with Crystal on a vessel called Harmony that’s now retired. We did a couple of shops, then Crystal did a new build and we did all the shops on that," says Rushbrook. "We got to know each other a little better, and they gave us the chance to bid for a refurb of penthouses, penthouse suites and standard cabins. Eventually, they decided to give us the whole lot – including the shops and corridors as well.

"It’s impossible to please everyone all the time. But, as long as the owner has a strong vision, it is possible to field all the different opinions and challenges you have coming in."

"It’s about really understanding and knowing their brand – this is a relationship we’ve built and nurtured now for so many years. I know them well enough that I would never go in with a colour-scheme idea that’s red, blue and orange. That’s not what they’re looking for; it’s not what their brand is."

II BY IV has recently completed a new set of penthouse interiors for Crystal. Drawing inspiration from late 19th and early 20th-century hotel designs, the interiors feature a timeless palate of charcoal grey tones and shades of tan.

"It’s funny, we show these photos to lots of people, especially in the hotel world, and nobody ever guesses it’s a cruise ship. They all think it’s a hotel somewhere," says Rushbrook. "It’s beautiful tones sitting on top of subtle textures. It relates to the experiences guests will have had on land.

"The whole approach is different, it’s not like the usual experience of getting on a ship where everything’s too bright and there’s an over-abundance of colour. It’s elegant and sophisticated."

Lovers’ tiff

But, while II BY IV and Crystal sound like a perfect match, not every operator-designer relationship is so harmonious.

"You have to understand, it’s like two lovers that need to know each other better," says Maurizio Cergol, senior chief designer at Italian shipbuilder Fincantieri. "If you’re a well-seasoned lover, you know exactly what to do.

Then the convergence is very quick, everybody knows what can be done and what can’t.

"But sometimes the owner wants to put fresh blood into a project, and so he proposes someone that’s very creative but has no experience of cruise vessels. Because they don’t know the rules, they’ll often come up with something that’s just not feasible on a ship."

Cergol goes on to give an example of a firm that wanted to install large windows so that the atrium of a vessel could look out on to the sea. Of course, the ship’s structure would not allow for this. Eventually, Fincantieri proposed a compromise: a pillar of steel would have to be incorporated.

"Of course, if you’re dealing with experienced people, this sort of thing very rarely happens," Cergol adds. "We’re also very flexible – we’re able to accommodate alterations when our client changes their mind, to ensure the product is what they really need."

Nguyen also admits that pleasing all parties involved in the design is not always a completely smooth process.

"There are a lot of cooks in the kitchen with varying opinions," she says. "Since design is such a subjective thing, you really need to have a pared-down committee to make final decisions. It’s impossible to please everyone all the time.

"But, as long as the owner has a strong vision or sense of direction, it is possible to field all the different opinions and challenges you have coming in."

The overriding message here is surprisingly simple: Nguyen, Rushbrook and Cergol – operator, designer and shipyard – all consider a strong working relationship as the cornerstone of any successful design.

Understanding each other’s goals, keeping within clearly defined roles and feeling comfortable enough to collaborate effectively are the key ingredients needed to create such a bond. Let us hope that any of Cergol’s "lovers that need to know each other better" are able to adopt this approach.