High flyers

Design Acumen hit the big time when it revamped BA’s first class cabins. It’s now added a Design Week award to its list and the only way is up, says Emma O’Kelly

“We were subterranean,” says Ian Dryburgh, managing director of Design Acumen (DA), the consultancy which was joint Best of Show winner with Turner Duckworth at this year’s Design Week Awards.

That may be so, but it can’t stay underground any more. Since design manager Russell Mulchansingh and senior project manager Simon Lunn realised the First project for British Airways and transformed first-class air travel as we know it, DA has hit the big time. The DW award is another to add to those received last year – namely a gold medal from the Design Council for top product of the year and a Marketing Design Award for most commercially innovative product.

Before the introduction of DA’s “herring bone” seating configuration – now fitted to almost 100 BA aircraft, from Jumbos to DC10s – first class differed from second only in price, colour of seats and maybe an extra free drink. As Lunn says: “The watchword for first class was more leg room. We played with the idea of space for the whole individual.” Their result has been well-documented: Armchair-style seats which adapt into 2m-long “beds in the sky” in a sound-proofed space incorporating the usual elements – table, TV screen and in-flight entertainment system. In addition, DA incorporated a “demi cabin” for passengers wanting guests; privacy screens and handsets with fax, phone and electronic games. The washroom, galley and storage aspects of the cabin were also changed, right through to the catering. Cumbersome trolleys have been ditched in favour of food on demand, courtesy of the Roux brothers.

Mulchansingh and Lunn, who worked alongside a core project team of in-house designers at BA, took 18 months to complete the project – record speed considering the number of mock-ups and amount of market research that had to be undertaken before BA’s nerves were calmed. “BA was very brave to do this. It showed a lot of foresight and faith,” says Lunn. Both Mulchansingh and Lunn agree it was their most challenging project to date. “Everything had to be considered, right down to the flaps on the ashtrays [because] weight was a huge issue,” says Mulchansingh.

BA built a full-sized mock-up cabin at its research and development centre at Heathrow to monitor customers’ reactions to the cabin. Extensive experimentation, including static and dynamic tests with the beds being fired at a wall at 100mph, were carried out. But what are the new cabins like to travel in? “That’s a bit of a sore point,” says Mulchansingh. “We haven’t been anywhere in them.”

Although the number of seats in first class has been cut from 18 to 14, to date there has only been a 10 per cent rise in first-class fare prices; how long this lasts remains to be seen. But the end result of the refit sets a long-awaited benchmark in aircraft interior design. According to Mulchansingh, other airlines are all too eager to copy the idea: “Singapore Airlines and Cathay Pacific kept coming back to us to do the same thing for them, but we’re patented to BA,” he says, though he’s cagey about revealing what other work may be in progress with the airline.

Both Mulchansingh and Lunn were freelancing when Dryburgh brought them together to work on the BA pitch. Mulchansingh, after graduating with an MA in industrial design from the Royal College of Art 11 years ago, worked at the old Conran Design Group in the product division in the heady days when the consultancy numbered around 200. In 1989, he formed his own consultancy, On The Line Design, where he stayed for five years before going freelance. Lunn is also an RCA graduate, in transport design, and DA was one of his employers in his ten-year career as a freelance.

DA was born of a multidisciplinary group of the same name founded in 1968. This has subsequently split into four groups under one umbrella: Graphic Acumen and Murdoch Bowers, which provide graphic and architectural services respectively; MIDI (Innovations), which deals with royalties and inventions; and DA, which was born 16 years ago when Dryburgh took over product, environment and transport design. The group’s office, overlooking a riverside wasteland between London and Tower bridges, has around 15 full-time staff, from industrial and transport designers to stylists and engineers.

It was a natural evolution for DA to move into aircraft design, explains Mulchansingh. As Dryburgh “is a bit of an old sailor” and the company has a strong transport base, DA has focused largely on boats. It has designed winches, windlasses and rope clutches for Lewmar Marine, the equipment supplier for the America’s Cup, for the past six years. In 1996 it won a marine industry Dame award for its blocks and pulleys range. And it was DA’s powerboats for Sunseeker International that caught BA’s eye. The consultancy also worked on projects ranging from a children’s playground system for SMP Playgrounds through to the restyling of caravans for the Swift Group.”Designing cabins and cockpits meant we were used to working on confined spaces,” says Mulchansingh.

Though it may not have been prominent in the UK until now, DA has long had its irons in numerous fires abroad. “We prefer working with overseas manufacturers and they provide 98 per cent of our work. They organise their budgets better than we do. Here, not nearly enough money is spent on development, whereas foreigners realise how important it is, and they are less resistant to change,” says Mulchansingh, citing Lewmar Marine and medical supplier Amersham International as cases in point.

As well being a winner in the UK, the consultancy has come out on top, along with three other European groups, in a competition set by French billboard company Giraudy to design a range of street furniture. Working in conjunction with architect Peter Bennison, DA will operate from his office in Paris. Dryburgh sees this two-year project as a way of “getting a toe-hold in France. This was a three-year ongoing pitch. I never realised how slow things are there, and the influence that French mayors have.”

The consultancy has a solid track record in transport work, having come up with concepts for East Coast Intercity trains and concepts for the refurbishment of London Underground’s District Line (although that has subsequently been put on the backburner). “Transport is a very strong area now, particularly railway projects, with all the shake-ups and privatisations,” says Lunn. But he is careful to ensure that the consultancy doesn’t polarise into product and transport design. “We don’t want to split off – we need each other.” With such a diverse design base, opportunities are everywhere for a team riding on the crest of a hugely successful wave. Excitement has also shifted to toy group Hasbro following the design of a Scuba Ski for the recently relaunched Action Man; Dryburgh is planning to keep the macho doll well accessorised.

Although he is keen to get more contacts in the UK, Dryburgh says: “Most of our work will continue to be overseas and we’re looking to expand into the Far East”. Now that the group’s “biggest job so far” is over, and the feedback from BA First travellers has been remarkably good, attention will surely shift to economy class, which must now look like a poor man’s cattle truck in comparison. “Yes, you’d be right to think that… ” says Mulchansingh.

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