A large first class space featuring various textures and thoughtful design.

Texture and depth in seat design: the next boundaries for CMF

Details and Design banner with text on graph paper backgroundThe colour, material and finish of today’s and tomorrow’s aircraft interiors need to be about more than just disguising pieces of composite and metal in an inoffensive greige. Rather, airlines and their partners within the design supply chain should be focused on thoughtful design that echoes elsewhere in the premium traveller’s life. 

Once, perhaps, these were more automotive, seen in seats like British Airways’ first class, emulated all the way down to the Jaguar-inspired seat control twist-knob. Today, though, the trend is largely away from automotive and towards residential and hotel, as the naming convention of business “suites” indeed suggests. Here, a quandary emerges: comfort, luxury and elegance in these settings are provided by a variety of textures, depth of furnishing, and a welcoming tactility.

These elements are complicated to produce within the aircraft cabin, for certain, with the need for robustness, flammability, smoke toxicity, and other certification requirements. But what’s striking — both in the seats on display as model options on the stands at trade shows like the Aircraft Interiors Expo and in the new seats emerging onto the market — is how few modern business class products are creating texture and depth.

The exception that proves the rule is Thompson Aero Seating’s Project Echo, an in-house palette that truly moves the design needle to elements that feel like they might be found in an interiors magazine. Real-world cabins, meanwhile, bring in these elements too: think the highly textured fabric walls of Japan Airlines’ latest first class suites, or the concrete-effect lamp in JetBlue’s Mint Suite.

Overhead view of JetBlue's Mint Suite in blues and grays with wood texture surfaces for detailing and a concrete effect lamp in view.

JetBlue’s Mint Suite’s concrete effect lamp adds texture and depth. Image: Acumen Design Associates

And thus, leafing through the current issue of the famous Architectural Digest , it’s striking how much of the effect of modern luxury interiors come from texture and depth — and, let’s face it, business class seats that sell for five to six figures a pop are, or should be, luxury interiors.

New American Classic designer Victoria Hagan’s Palm Beach estate is a great example of how layering texture creates depth even among a palette of neutrals: woven lampshades, mixed woods, varied fabrics — from leather to cotton to more textured beachy fibres — and touches of botanical greens and brassy gold really pop.

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Fashion designer Adam Lippes’ retreat in the Massachusetts Berkshires leans unsurprisingly and unashamedly towards textiles, with a whimsical set of historical touches verging at times towards a camp rococo aesthetic. Texture abounds, from the plaster relief walls to fabric room dividers and lush fabrics that bring a sense of opulent comfort.

Some of this is the use of cushions and other textiles, which again is inherently easier in a residential setting rather than on the aircraft, where daily laundry, high wear and industrial levels of safety certification are the norm. But there are so many deeply textured and tactile cushion or textile options on offer from the likes of Wessco, Formia, Buzz and John Horsfall to name just a few. 

Virgin Atlantic business class cabin with pink/purple LED lights illuminating the seats.

A number of airlines — including, here, Virgin Atlantic — show hard surfaces very well, but what about softer elements? Image: John Walton

Not all of this is the smart use of soft product textiles, although there are certainly airlines looking to up their game here — particularly those looking to figure out how to manage the Mount Blankets of a half-dozen soft product items from pillow to duvet to blanket to mattress pad staged on a seat.

A gray blanket and white pillow sit atop a grey Iberia business class seat

Iberia’s solution to Mount Blankets is smart… if only it weren’t just so beige. Image: John Walton

Some of this may need to start considering staging alongside other cabin dress standards. Alongside folding seatbelts neatly, can a blanket be folded over an armrest or side table? Can the sleeping pillow be pre-staged via velcro or a fabric loop to the headrest? Can a throw pillow be propped on a surface, perhaps held in place by the amenity kit? And can other options be designed into the seat — and suite — itself?

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Featured image credited to John Walton