Design on the Fly

Disegno #17 (2017)

Image by Jörg Koopmann.

So we’re sat in the hull of a Lufthansa Airbus A350-900, whose name, somewhat weirdly given that we’re in Munich, is Nuremberg. Anyway, the Nuremberg is parked in a hangar, and it’s hellaciously hot, even though it’s September and I was expecting something a bit more temperate. But the problem is that they can’t air-condition these things when they’re in the shed because the engines aren’t running – although there must be power somewhere, because all the televisions are projecting flickering messages like “Flight Closed”, which is a bit like the start of a horror movie set on a jumbo jet that could maybe even be called Flight Closed. There’s also this low kind of persistent humming of electrical systems ticking over, which is quite sonorous at first, although it really starts to bore into your soul after a while. Anyway, we’re knocking about this inferno of a flugzeug, which is only getting hotter the longer we’re rattling around its heat sink of a belly, and we’re all quite sweaty. Oh, and Boris Ogursky is here too, who is at least 2m tall, but still having to very kindly rush back and forth through what is a big plane – although quite a tight cabin – because he’s trying to show me its lighting system. So Boris is repeatedly bursting out from behind the lighting controls in the curtained area where the stewards are normally busy preparing drinks and snacks, jollily announcing things like, “This is take-off lighting now, it’s getting more friendly,” or, “This is wake up. You can see it’s transitioning to a slightly pink light,” or, “We’re now speeding up – although of course, for the true effect you would have to consider that the shades would all be up,” and all this time the lights are cycling through a range of purples and yellows like a full-blown Münchner nachtklub. For true insight into the situation, you would have to appreciate that Boris and I are more or less the only people on this plane.

Well, actually, Björn Bosler is here too. Bosler is Lufthansa’s head of customer experience design, Ogursky the company’s spokesperson, and together they’ve been tasked with showing me the economy-class cabin of the A350-900. It’s a design for which Lufthansa was awarded the 2018 German Design Award for Transportation and, truth be told, we’re all quite excited. We’re also all quite prepped, having just spent 15 minutes walking through Lufthansa’s facility outside of Munich airport, which is a pretty heavily branded space. It’s a strict field of Lufthansa-approved white and grey, picked out with Lufthansa yellow (RAL 1028) infrastructural elements, and signage in Lufthansa’s adapted Helvetica proprietary font that states things like “Rauchen verboten” – smoking forbidden! Meanwhile, the entire front of the hangar opens up like a set of oversized French windows to admit the aircraft, with all the glazed panels covered by silhouettes of birds in flight because the Lufthansa palette is not the easiest colour spectrum for actual birds to navigate around. “They can’t see because of the white background,” notes Ogursky. Upon seeing these, I’m reminded of the activist Naomi Klein’s assertion that “our economic system and our planetary system are now at war”, but decide that bird decals probably wasn’t what she was getting at.

Anyway, it’s a huge space, so any plane parked in it would look intimidatingly impressive, but the Nuremberg is really a very large plane indeed – a long-haul leviathan designed for shuttling between Munich, Boston and Delhi.1 The body is gleaming and its metal panels look slippery and sleek, graduating from the gunmetal underbelly to a sparkling white carapace that looks positively dripping, like poured cream. The wings bow upwards and the engines are emblazoned with a cowlick of a mesmerist’s swirl which, happily, hints at the enrapturing effect of actually seeing one of these machines up close. In fact, the overall impact is curiously cetaceous. “It’s strange,” I venture, “because the Natural History Museum in London has a big exhibition about whales on at the moment, with a lot of skeletons and specimens.” “And it looks like one of them?” asks Bosler. I start to explain that, yes, in terms of scale and smoothness there’s a certain similarity to the bleached bones of one of the larger whale species like perhaps a fin whale or a grey whale, but my attention is caught by a Tyrolean hat the size of a merry-go-round that’s hanging on the wall. “Why is there a big hat?” I ask. It turns out that they sometimes make the planes wear it for the holidays.

It is exceedingly rare for a commercial plane to be accessible like this when on the ground. “Any time the plane is on the ground is valuable, because economically we need them flying,” explains Ogursky. The plane is only here because it’s undergoing maintenance. “Sometimes a plane can be here for several weeks, when they’re really checking everything and more or less replacing every part of the aircraft,” says Bosler, revealing that that level of maintenance would qualify as a D check, the most serious service on a scale that ranges upwards from A, which I imagine stands for something like “More or less A-OK!” “So is this an A check?” I ask. “Probably even more minor,” responds Ogursky. “We can also have a plane in just to repair a toilet lid.” When on board, I check this story out. There is indeed a chipped toilet seat,2 and trivial as that may seem, it is likely of considerable importance to Lufthansa. Since the 1960s, the company has employed one of the most exacting corporate design strategies of the 20th and 21st centuries. A compromised toilet does not fall within the schema.

You’ll probably need some history. Lufthansa began operating flights in 1926 as the Deutsche Luft Hansa AG, before being liquidated by the Allied Powers after the Second World War. The company was reestablished in 1954 as Lufthansa German Airlines, among the assets of which were a logo of a crane in flight designed by the architect and graphic designer Otto Firle in 1918 for the Deutsche Luft-Reederei company,3 and a colour palette that included dark blue and orange-yellow, both of which have remained constant to this day. “We certainly have a special yellow,” says Ogursky, showing me his name tag, which is lovingly tricked out in said yellow. “It’s a little rich, but it’s not orange. It’s still yellow, although not an ordinary yellow.” I’d have to agree. In his 2006 essay “Red and Yellow Kills a Fellow” the design theorist David Barringer remarked that yellow is often used as a warning colour, something that alerts us “to fast food and danger” and which symbolises “joy and cowardice, the color of oak-tree ribbons and jaundice”. Having looked around the Lufthansa facility, I think that Barringer must have had a different tone of yellow in mind,4 because for those not familiar with Lufthansa yellow, it’s a shade that sits somewhere between the colour of a rich yolk slipping thickly from a duck egg (probably into a lovely cake batter), and the yellow cover of Nigel Slater’s Eat cookbook. In other words, Lufthansa yellow isn’t threatening, not even a little, not even in the slightest. Considering it’s the chief decoration for an airline’s livery, that’s a good thing.

In spite of having both crane and yellow in place, Lufthansa’s design output during the 1950s and early 1960s was disparate. “What one notices first about 1955-1962 Lufthansa design,” writes the graphic designer Jens Müller in his 2012 study Lufthansa + Graphic Design, “is how random every aspect of it is.” A 1955 poster by Sven Anker Lindström and Atelier Walter Rau shows a painted image of a steward on the steps of a plane clutching a young girl, who waves at the viewer with a fixed grin and eyes that seem to be screaming in horror at the prospect of air travel. A series of early 1960s designs by Hans Rott, by contrast, are more graphic. In one, a plane flies across the iris of a vast, staring, Saul Bass-esque eye that is Hitchcockian and dread‑filled, and which makes one wonder why anyone thought a wrathful sky god would be a good addition to the brand’s nascent communication strategy.5 Posters by Barbara and Hannes Geissler, meanwhile, could easily read as the covers of pulp spy novels: in one image, a pocket watch hangs down against a moss‑green backdrop, while bold font announces Non-Stop: Köln New York, an intercontinental adventure from the desk of Lufthansa. This age of relative corporate anarchy only ended in April 1962 with the arrival of Lufthansa’s new head of worldwide advertising, Hans G. Conrad. Conrad was a graduate of the Ulm School of Design (Hochschule für Gestaltung or HfG) and quickly commissioned his former teacher Otl Aicher to regenerate Lufthansa’s design strategy. Under Aicher, the director of HfG’s Entwicklungsgruppe 5 (E5) development group,6 Lufthansa’s diffused corporate design wrecked upon the dual rocks of HfG’s revisionist Project 1400 and the corporate tome that emerged from it the following year – a quadratic ring binder forebodingly titled ‘Lufthansa Advertising Guidelines and Regulations CGN XE 3’.

“A consistently applied aesthetic is acomprehensive way of wooing consumers’ trust,” reads an early statement in the Project 1400 research document, striking a quasi-scientific tone that reveals something of the rigour with which Aicher approached his task. Project 1400 proposed root and branch change to create a “new Lufthansa aesthetic” based around the principles of contemporary design research. “It was plain from the start that the clear and unadorned Ulm design concept would be the model,” says Müller. The project quickly stripped away the frivolity that had marked Lufthansa’s earlier era. Aicher specified Lufthansa’s Helvetica-derived font (“associated with ‘technology’ and ‘hard fact’”); introduced arrows as a predominant graphic element (“the most obvious symbol to represent aviation”); replaced all illustrative and graphical advertising (“forms of expression [that] do not relate closely to aviation technology”) with photography; repositioned the brand’s colour palette such that yellow dominated, with dark blue reserved for accents (suggesting “speed, safety, freshness, liveliness, activity, technology and flying” and “seriousness and efficiency”, respectively). “The more systematic an aesthetic is, the more compelling it will be,” wrote Aicher, which was subsequently codified in ‘Lufthansa Advertising Guidelines and Regulations CGN XE 3’, a series of standards intended “to establish a worldwide uniform Lufthansa aesthetic” that would ensure that “people accept the quality of [Lufthansa’s] products and services based on its aesthetic values.” In case it’s not clear, it was a pretty big design job.

The implementation of the design was completed by 1967 and even today it remains one of the most successful and long-lasting corporate rebranding exercises in history. Indeed, as recently as 2009, Tyler Brûlé – the founder of Wallpaper* and Monocle magazines, and a man for whom living is livery – was still describing his editorial and commercial projects as speaking to the “Lufthansa generation”. In Müller’s words, Aicher provided Lufthansa with “one of the most progressive corporate design policies in the world – a model to aspire to for other companies in the aviation sector and beyond.” As a 1974 Lufthansa advert boasted, “The French have more charm. The Spanish have more style. The Italians have more romance…. Try us for flying.”

Thing is, though, the Nuremberg’s interior doesn’t look very Aicher. As Bosler, Ogursky and I prowl the aisles, we’re confronted by rigid banks of three seats. That’s the standard configuration for a long-haul aircraft, but in the case of the A350-900 something strangely spontaneous has happened within that grid – something that doesn’t come straight out of the Project 1400 playbook. “We call it colour breeze,” says Bosler. Across the cabin, Lufthansa’s RAL 5013 blue has splintered into five different shades of upholstery. The tones are richest and darkest at the edges, where the seats are a deep astral blue, before fading towards the centre and into shades of beautiful, worn-in denim. On each seat, little sections of padding are picked out in panels that are darker still, with neatly folded seatbelts in a rich navy like mayoral sashes for safety. The weave is thick and criss-crossed as in carbon fibre, suggestive of performance and functionality, but the overall effect is softened considerably by the gouache palette. The space is actually kind of homely for an aircraft, with waves of blue that wash across each row to crest in the centre before roiling down into the depths.

“It’s a chromatic scale?” I venture. “Co-rrect,” replies Bosler cheerfully. “It breaks up the formerly very stringent colour code of Lufthansa.” ‘Lufthansa Advertising Guidelines and Regulations CGN XE 3’, I think, would be absolutely appalled.

Colour breeze’s effect on the Nuremberg is dramatic and a world away from the industrial automotive aesthetics of most airline cabins.7 The plane’s interior is domestic, bearing some parallels to a design executed by Gerrit Rietveld for the Dutch carrier KLM in the 1950s. Rietveld suggested upholstering seats and partition panels in shades of red, blue and yellow in order to break up the white monotony of the cabin. “The panels, which all the passengers must look at throughout the journey, have to be included in the overall composition,” wrote Reitveld of his design, which sadly never made it to fruition and exists only in the form of sketches and material samples that are gleeful and glorious, and – to get personal for a moment – remind me in a very positive way of eating a Solero. “There must be something to see, something that increases in vibrancy the more you look at it,” said Rietveld, anticipating one of the central ideas of colour breeze around 60 years ahead of schedule – the introduction of greater materiality and diversity in order to prompt human interest.

“Lufthansa is very strong on design and has a big design history,” says Bosler. “There are a lot of catalogues about what is allowed and what is not allowed, but what we’ve done in the last few years is loosen those up a bit. Instead of clear directions, we’re giving corridors. We’re saying that the blue, for instance, can be opened up a little bit from the pure RAL 5013 into something more lively.” I ask Bosler how this change has been received in a company built upon Aicher’s assessment that a brand’s “aesthetic [ought to be] carried primarily by the company colours”. “Let’s put it this way,” he replies, as we walk through into business class. “With Lufthansa, aesthetics are important. I don’t think everyone within the company necessarily knows all our history, but it is a part of the DNA. So when our planes are delivered for the first time, I check the interiors and I meet colleagues from maintenance who you get talking to about design.” He points to a slab of soft caramel brown leather that separates two of the seats. “They say things like, ‘Who invented this brown panel? I don’t like it. Why is it brown?’ It’s stuff like that, you know.”

In the confines of the Sông Quê Vietnamese café on Kingsland Road, east London, the inventors of that brown panel are settling down to talk.8 “I don’t like flying anymore,” says Luke Pearson, part way through a bowl of beef pho. “Having flown every 8 days for the past 15 years, there are some airlines which I dread travelling with. You know, you get into an aircraft and you’re travelling very, very quickly in a way that humans could never, ever possibly imagine doing. You’re thinking about images from the 1960s, when aircraft travel suddenly became really quite possible, and you had amazing conditions of people drinking cocktails and smoking and having a party at 39,000ft. But actually, plane interiors are rather dull. They’ve designed the experience to be as quick as possible, so you’re herded through and it’s all pretty odd. I really don’t like flying anymore.” From across the table, Pearson’s partner Tom Lloyd looks up from his meal.9 “And I’m much less willing to travel than Luke is.”

Pearson and Lloyd founded their design studio PearsonLloyd in 1997,10 four years after they graduated from the Royal College of Art’s MA Furniture Design and MA Industrial Design courses respectively. Since then, their practice has straddled these disciplines, with projects that pitch between what the design critic Anna Bates, a frequent collaborator of the studio, described in Damn° magazine as the “craft-like practice of furniture design, and the market and trend-driven culture of product design”. Bates’s description is apt, offering a recognition of the fact that Pearson and Lloyd have been able to yoke their ability to craft elegantly designed forms to an interest in the ways in which those forms might actually be used. “As a studio, we’re thinking about things from a user-experience perspective,” says Pearson. “We’re responding to a macro-theme in design that the world is moving from products to experiences,” continues Lloyd. “We’re now designing experiences that have products, rather than products that have experiences. A product is really just a facilitator of an experience.” Indeed, the pair describe themselves as “servants of the brand”, embedding themselves within the constraints of industrial design, rather than cultivating a personal aesthetic. Pearson and Lloyd seem to militate against egotistical or statement design; “we’re not so precious about how our projects reflect on us” states the profile on their website, which might seem like a sop but, when you compare it to the level of personal branding visible on other designers’ websites (within the first 32 words of his biography, the designer Karim Rashid deploys the phrase “Karim’s legend of design”; Philippe Starck manages “global fame and tireless protean inventiveness” within 17), suggests a considerable difference in approach.

Since its foundation, PearsonLloyd has worked for brands such as Bene, Walter Knoll, Teknion and Tacchini, producing office furniture that ranges across task chairs, desks and full workplace systems. A recurring feature of the studio’s practice, however, is an interest in how design shapes behaviour in public spaces. The studio has completed wayfinding systems for Westminster, Bath and Sheffield councils; a public-facing information system to reduce violence in NHS Accident and Emergency wards; and Slim, a conference seating system for Alias, which introduced the design language of a private space like the home into the semi-public space of an office. And, yes, I appreciate that I’ve used the word “system” three times in one sentence, which I would normally try to avoid, but it does seem to capture the way in which PearsonLloyd’s designs are intended to plug into social situations, rather than functioning as standalone statements. Neither Pearson nor Lloyd, I suspect, are object fetishists.

By this point, we’ve drunk nearly two pots of jasmine tea and I, for one, am feeling jazzed. Pearson and Lloyd are hitting their stride too, starting to open up about the ethos behind the Lufthansa project. “One of the things we’ve been playing with for a long time are experiences like going to the theatre or a restaurant,” says Pearson. “The last thing you want is an empty theatre or an empty restaurant, because the quality of those two experiences are enhanced by the collective.” I refrain from mentioning that we only went to the Sông Quê Vietnamese café because it was quite quiet and the other restaurant we tried was full. “If you eat in an empty restaurant you think you’ve made the wrong choice; if there are empty seats around you, you’ve gone to the wrong show. Everything outside your front door is public realm, so as a designer you’re constantly trying to play between private and public experience.” Which is why the studio is interested in the aviation industry’s capacity to mix the two. “The environment in a plane isn’t particularly romantic, so you’re forced into a slight emotional dislocation,” explains Pearson. “You slightly shut down and either try and get as much sleep as possible or you watch a couple of movies. Flying isn’t celebrated as a communal experience, although there’s some interesting contradiction in that it forces you into the closest proximity with other people for the longest period of time anywhere in your life – unless you’re a prisoner.” Those who have ever flown Ryanair and heard the slow warden-like tread of the steward threatening travellers with an in-flight charity scratch card might dispute Pearson’s distinction here.

Nonetheless, PearsonLloyd has considerable experience in the aviation industry. In 2001, the studio redesigned the upper-class suite, seat and surroundings of Virgin Atlantic’s fleet, before being picked up by Lufthansa in 2008 to design the business-class seat and cabin configuration of its Boeing 747-8i jumbo jets – a commission that brought considerable engineering challenges. “One thing we learnt pretty early on is that aviation may feel futuristic, but much of it is actually handmade,” says Lloyd. “The numbers for a business-class seat are too small to invest in tooling like you would for a plastic chair, so you’re trying to present a thing of real beauty and precision through a not very precise, handmade industry.” Alongside navigating these industrial constraints, a key issue for the Lufthansa brief was finding a way to apply Aicher-initiated brand guidelines to a contemporary setting intended to reflect a certain level of luxury. “Business-class cabins are the embodiment of the brand of an airline,” says Lloyd, whose sentiment is bolstered by a quip made by Bosler when discussing Lufthansa’s decision in 2010 to develop a new colour range for its first-class lounge: “It was the first time we realised, ‘Hang on – a super-premium product with yellows, blues and greys is going to be difficult.’” To contextualise this challenge, here are some of the more prominent logos that deploy similar colour schemes: the European Union, Pokémon, Internet Explorer, Blockbuster video. None of these are luxury brands. “We had to go more into caramel, chablis, brown and grey tones,” says Bosler, which explains that contentious brown-leather panel installed by PeasonLloyd in the business-class seats. “We’d been talking about the reduction of yellow in the cabin,” says Pearson, “so we reinterpreted the yellow as brown leather. And that’s really the nice thing about the brand having such a deep legacy – they can evolve that in a very subtle way to produce a lovely lineage.”

A confession. The reason I’m not eating at the restaurant with Pearson and Lloyd is that on the way here I stopped at Itsu and so I’m full of avocado baby rolls, which I only bring up because Itsu is a branded space that reminds you, at every step of the way, that you’re in an Itsu. The entire interior is executed in Itsu white, Itsu pink and Itsu yellow; the Itsu butterfly logo is busy fluttering around on all of the surfaces like an Itsu moth in an Itsu jumper drawer; and many of the menu options are called weird Itsu things like “potsu”. Similarly, the walls are designed to look a bit like Japanese shōji because, well, sushi. It’s not a discreet effect. “In the 80s and 90s, branding was the idea that you could just stick your name on something and that’s got value,” says Pearson, who in the interests of fairness I should point out is not speaking specifically about Itsu. “But people today have become much more brand-conscious. There’s a huge movement with millennials buying handmade objects, which are probably the antithesis of the big brand culture. What’s happening now is that brands are trying to get back in touch with what they stand for. What brands need to realise is that they can’t just say: ‘Here’s our name, we’re great, buy us.’ They’ve got to deliver.”

It’s a shift that ties to what Naomi Klein, writing in The Guardian in one of those rare moments she’s not talking about bird decals, criticised as “the idea that corporations should produce brands, not products[…] Nike isn’t a running shoe company, it is about the idea of transcendence through sports, Starbucks isn’t a coffee shop chain, it’s about the idea of community.” In Klein’s eyes, brands stopped metaphorically putting a bird on it, and instead began searching for aspirational lifestyle traits they wished to embody. It’s something like the difference between a 1964 Lufthansa advert that ran with “Bangkok / Lufthansa” atop a photograph of a Thai statue, and a 2010 advert that features a man who looks a bit like Steve McQueen – but somehow more aspirational – staring wistfully out of an airplane window while a text reads, “Independence / A product of Lufthansa”. Pearson, I suspect, is not opposed to Klein’s scepticism of branded bullshit – his desire for brands to figure out what they stand for is not some excuse for said companies to engage in metaphysical brand onanism. Rather, it’s a call for a corporation to decide what makes their product or service valuable, and then communicate that accordingly without bluster or bravado. “You can’t oversell it and you can’t sell something that doesn’t exist,” says Lloyd sagely. “So with Lufthansa there’s a recognition that once you arrive in the aircraft, you don’t need to be told you’re flying Lufthansa. You’ve already bought in.” But what exactly is it that you’ve bought into?

So I’m back roaming the belly of the good ship Nuremberg,11 freshly armed with PearsonLloyd-gleaned knowledge and ready to tackle whatever it is that colour breeze is doing for Lufthansa and what it might say about the state of aviation today. Or I would be were it not for Bosler and Ogursky being quite keen to first show me a small metal loop on one of the seats in premium economy. “You might not want to have your glasses on while you’re flying,” says Bosler, pointing to the loop’s tiny engraving of quite a fetching pair of Clark Kent spectacles. Ogursky demonstrates dangling his spectacles through the loop. “It’s what we call ‘thought through,’” he says. “We’re really trying to think about what might be relevant for people on board.” Oddly, I do understand why they’re showing me this loop. Small detail though it may be, it actually speaks quite neatly about the changes that Lufthansa is going through.

“For the past nearly hundred years or so, safety has been the thing that Lufthansa sold,” remarks Lloyd towards the end of our meeting in the café. “That’s what they were selling and that’s what people were buying, because precision and accuracy have historically been the German brand. But luckily – touch wood – most airlines are now safe. So what should Lufthansa sell now?” When Aicher worked on Lufthansa’s design in the 1960s, he emphasised the technological aspects of the airline’s service, arguing that design had reached a stage at which “technological form is favoured over heraldic representation”. As such, his aesthetic was “chosen to suggest precision, clarity, security and speed”, with this decision subsequently launching Lufthansa’s reputation as, to quote former The New York Times reporter Alison Smale, “a proud symbol of Germany Inc., standing for the quality and smooth functionality of Europe’s No. 1 economy”. Lufthansa, in other words, played on a reputation of efficiency to become the airline of choice for the international business traveller. Hence its splendidly stereotypical 1972 advertising copy: “When you say you’re flying Lufthansa and will arrive at 8:05, you will be expected at 8:05. What a reputation we Germans have[…] If you’re a little late checking in, you’ll still see a smiling face. If we’re a little late taking off you’ll see a red face.”

It’s a reputation of which Bosler and Ogursky are well aware. “Lufthansa is regarded as a major player in the airline industry, but it’s still perceived as quite a strict business airline for somebody who is willing and able to spend a little bit more money,” says Bosler. “It’s always been perceived as engineering-focused – metal, if you’re talking materials.” Bosler’s analogy operates metaphorically, but also literally – Aicher specified his horror of the technological aspect of an airplane being “destroyed, impeded, or hidden” in any way, and stressed the need to recognise airplanes, engineering components and all, as among “our most aesthetically impressive, technological, high-quality objects”. It’s an image that the company now wishes to de-emphasise, or at least supplement. “Please correct me if I’m wrong,” says Ogursky, plucking his spectacles from the loop, “but Lufthansa has made tremendous efforts in the last few years to reach out to leisure customers. We are strong on business travel, but in terms of actual numbers most of our passengers fly economy. So we’re now reaching out to leisure customers who are always looking for the best bargains, up to premium economy, up to business class, up to first class – which is quite a stretch, but we need to be broad because we need all those segments to operate profitably.” As of October, Lufthansa had carried 111 million passengers in 2017, exceeding the 109.7 million passengers it managed in the whole of 2016. In part, this increase is owed to the expansion of the airline’s Eurowings and Brussels Airlines budget brands, which reported a nine-month adjusted operating profit of €145m. Lufthansa’s future economics may well lie in economy.

Work on the PearsonLloyd economy cabin began in 2014, and the design is expected to be in operation until the mid 2020s, meaning that the design is basically the airline’s vision for where it’s heading for close to a decade to come. “So do you have a set development schedule, or is it just kind of ad hoc?” I ask Bosler, who looks at me like I’ve just been sick on the seats. “No ad hoc. No ad hoc at all,” he says. “We have four or five years working on a product before it reaches the market and then it lasts about eight years. We’re thoroughly analysing every touchpoint, so we need to know the gain points and the pain points, invest in those, and make sure it’s a good journey. Our aim is that you leave the airport and feel it’s been a good journey and that you’re going to recommend Lufthansa. I think our recent design supports the idea of being a little bit more approachable, less strict, less formal – a little bit less business-like.” This may sound like an affront to the rigour of ‘Lufthansa Advertising Guidelines and Regulations CGN XE 3’, but – in something of a major mindscrew – it was actually programmed into Aicher’s original design proposal. In a Project 1400 subsection titled ‘The Obsolescence of an Aesthetic’, Aicher acknowledged the need to update his work as time passed by. “Once established, an aesthetic cannot[…] maintain a strong message forever[…] The relevance of the aesthetic depends on technological, cultural and economic conditions.” If Lufthansa needed to loosen up, ‘Lufthansa Advertising Guidelines and Regulations CGN XE 3’ made provision for letting its hair down.

“When Lufthansa approached us, they had a very strong tagline, which was ‘Nonstop you’,” says Pearson. This slogan launched in 2012, replacing previous incumbent, “There’s no better way to fly”, the earlier “You see the world the way you fly”, the even earlier “The more you fly”, and the somewhat chilling 1920s offering: “When other airlines stay on the ground – Lufthansa flies!” This shift in tone suggests a move away from directly promoting Lufthansa’s service towards the Kleinian idea of embodying aspirational qualities that using the service will, allegedly, bestow. What’s more, since 2015, the company has operated a programme titled the ‘Surpass My Individual Lufthansa Experience’ (SMILE). Meanwhile Lufthansa’s Brussels Airlines operates under the slogan “We Go The Extra Smile”. This emphasis on smiling at all costs is grotesquely cheesy, but also indicative of the airline’s growing interest in how it might shape a customer’s experience beyond transporting them safely and on time.12

“When it came to ‘Nonstop you’,” says Pearson, “we were interested in the idea that it was not just about ‘you’ as an individual, but also referred to the collective experience of flying. An airline cabin is a very big space, with a very big group of people doing exactly the same thing, so what does that space say to you in terms of the collective experience? Airlines usually champion the individual seat, but that’s not actually playing to their advantage, because what they’re championing in that case is a small space that’s been designed to be cost-effective. As a designer, you can’t do much to the physical space, but what you can do is change perceptions of it. So the colour breeze is there to stop repetition – it gives you a sense of personal space and a sense that your space is slightly different from others’.” Conversely, colour also serves to link passengers together. “We often talk about the difference between reading an object at 10m away and at 1m away,” says Lloyd. “A 1m read of the cabin and you’re celebrating the details of the seat, but at 10m you’re getting the more powerful experience: the moment you step into a cabin.”

I know what Lloyd means. The Nuremberg feels oddly subversive. The space still looks like a plane interior, there’s no getting away from that, but the presence of variation in a setting you’ve been sociologically trained to think of as standardised to the nines sets synapses popping: fiestaware and beach loungers; flexing blue tangs, soft evenings and iced-over lakes; fluttering blue tarps and drifting Frakta shopping bags, lonely and lost in the Ikea carpark like that sad monkey in the beautiful shearling coat.13 Narrative here is welcome. At Lloyd’s 10m distance, colour breeze’s refraction of the Lufthansa blue is intended to mimic the changes in light that occur throughout a plane’s journey from takeoff, up towards the stratosphere, and back down to earth. The aesthetic evokes the experience it’s there to facilitate. “For us, this progression of blue felt like flying,” says Pearson. “Which, of course, you experience when you look out of the windows, but internally in the aircraft we felt that it was stretching the space. Rather than focusing on your individual seat, you’re understanding your relationship to the aircraft and in turn understanding your relationship to your fellow passenger. It’s a small symbol to try and remind someone that flying is really quite a special activity and not just a row of seats.”

And roaming the Nuremberg when it’s berthed is a curious experience – not so much a space, as an experience in waiting, with every muscle and sinew tensed in preparation for flight. The Nuremberg is an aeronautical Marie Celeste, all rattle and hum, fizzing with idling electricity systems, the seats set out with white pillows perched pert as hotel chocolates. “It’s very strange walking around a plane with nobody on it,” I say. “It’s a different atmosphere! It really is,” replies Ogursky. “But a good one?”

Thing is, nobody is meant to be on one of these things when they’re idling, because a plane isn’t a space, or at least not in the conventional sense. It’s something more like a process. “And a classic case of formality and informality,” adds Pearson. “Flying is an experience that’s very planned, but you somehow want to be given the sense that you’re in charge of your time there, which is the paradox. So we wanted to create somewhere where experiences can actually begin to unfold, because flying can be lovely. It can be solitary and reflective and individual and anonymous, but by the same token you can relate to somebody for nine hours who you’ve never met before and who you’ll never meet again, and have wonderful, life-changing conversations. Most airlines just work with the catalogue that’s delivered by Boeing or Airbus, but Lufthansa has a design culture. If we say we prefer a flathead screw to a roundhead screw on the trim of a toilet door, they’ll change that, because it adds to the experience.” Lloyd cuts in. “It’s this whole idea of place-making,” he says, “because for a long time airlines just went back to standardisation. Now, however, things are beginning to change. They’re allowing different people to have a different experience.” Even if that difference is just sitting on a slightly different shade of blue from your neighbour, the effect can be profound. “I guess standardisation does kind of wipe out a sense of place doesn’t it?” I say. “It’s like when you go into airports and you see the Tie Rack, and really you could be anywhere because there are no clues.” “Tie Rack?” asks Lloyd. “You’re showing your age now.”

  1. A fact gleaned from the Airbus website: “The overall wing area of Airbus’ A350 XWB covers more space than two tennis courts.” This sounds disappointingly smaller than I remember it as being.

  2. The photographer of this article, Jörg Koopmann, showed his investigative journalistic chops and documented this. Weirdly, Disegno’s design team chose not to include the resulting image.

  3. This crane was a little different to that which Lufthansa uses now: the original is lanker and more naturalistic. It’s more beautiful than its successor, but less successful as a logo.

  4. In support of Barringer, “joy and cowardice” would make a very good subtitle for any experience of eating at McDonald’s.

  5. Scratch that – it’s an amazing idea.

  6. A hallmark of the Ulm Model was to combine traditional pedagogy with commissioned work for industrial clients that served as “operational research”. These commissions were overseen by development groups; E5 was the one attached to the visual communication department.

  7. Or Ryanair’s “school coach of the damned” aesthetic.

  8. This article will occasionally flit between the Vietnamese restaurant and the hangar in Munich. For the most part, I think it will be obvious as to where we are, but for the sake of clarity I have endeavoured to add subtle signposting such as repeated references to bowls of pho or the low hum of an airplane idling in a Munich hangar in order to avoid confusion.

  9. I can’t remember what he had, but I think it involved noodles.

  10. Eponymous studios are a writer’s nightmare. I maintain that there is no way known to journalism to make this sentence sound any less clunky.

  11. Well, at least within the structure of this article. In terms of a strict chronology, I’m probably wandering back to my office from the Vietnamese café.

  12. In a bid to encapsulate this idea, I have adjusted Lufthansa’s original “When other airlines stay on the ground – Lufthansa flies!” logo to become “When other airlines stay on the ground and frown – Lufthansa flies, ready to neutralise sighs in the skies because there’s no excise on kind eyes!” I have yet to formally pitch this slogan to the company.

  13. Google it and enjoy.