A custom aircraft interior can be inspired by anything. Take the sophisticated, moody, and detail-rich cabin of Project Thunderbird, the notion for which came from a chair. “The owner thought the available interior choices were bland, so he asked me for ideas,” says London-based designer Colin Radcliffe, who started the project facing the vast, empty cabin of an ACJ319neo, which has up to 115 seats in its commercial Airbus version.
Seeking a unique look, Radcliffe seized on an object his client loved: an early-20th-century Macassar-ebony chair by Émile-Jacques Ruhlmann, a leading figure of the Art Deco movement. “From that, I came up with drawings inspired by an era of bygone travel, as glamorous and elegant as an Odeon-style 1930s ocean liner,” says Radcliffe. “I loved the idea of layers of book-matched veneers and unlacquered brass fittings that gain a patina with age.”
But for an interior specialist—especially one like Radcliffe, who typically works on private residences, not aircraft—the concept can often be at odds with the realities of a large, long-range jet. “Not all designers understand the constraints,” says Jeremie Caillet, senior vice president of regional operations at Jet Aviation in Basel, Switzerland, where Thunderbird’s interior was completed. “An airplane isn’t a house or a yacht, so we work closely with them to achieve producible, certifiable results.”
Building and installing a custom interior in a “green” aircraft—one received from the manufacturer as an olive-drab canvas awaiting finish work—is neither quick nor simple, particularly since more owners are insisting on one-of-a-kind looks.
“We sometimes start talking to clients 14 months before the aircraft reaches us,” says Ashley Moulton, a senior interior designer for aviation-services company Comlux Completion, as we tour its first ACJ TwoTwenty project, just weeks from fruition, at the company’s Indianapolis facility.
The six-zone business jet, tail number 9H-Five (referring to its Dubai-based owner, Five Hotels and Resorts), has been in the hangar for 14 months, several months longer than planned, because it was the first TwoTwenty undergoing completions. The customer selected from among 77 possible floorplans—and hundreds of fabrics, leathers, woods, and metals—for what is now the open, contemporary 16-seat cabin.
“Every new program has challenges, but in this case, we were developing multiple living-area modules and options so the clients had their layout preferences,” says Daron Dryer, Comlux Completion’s CEO. Outfitting 9H-Five proved to be a steep learning curve for the Comlux team, but with the system now in place, subsequent TwoTwenty aircraft should move through completions in a much shorter time frame.
The broad stylistic differences between the two cabins attest to the wide range of possibilities that exist—not to mention build complexities. Jet Aviation’s specialists spent a month putting together a stylized sunburst pattern, with 180 thin “rays” of four different veneers, separated by slender brass strips, filling an entire bulkhead. “Each piece was placed and manipulated by hand,” says Caillet, noting the sunburst design was used on four such installations.
Another bulkhead in the office is finished in velvet and embroidered in gold-silk thread, and the bathroom is a study in Nero Portoro marble and beige onyx. Meanwhile, the bulkheads hide hundreds of yards of bundled wiring, air ducts, and soundproofing materials.
Since everything in the aircraft must be lightweight and fireproof to pass certification, creative solutions are often necessary. For stone countertops, Comlux uses a significantly lighter composite look-alike, while real, razor-thin wood veneers are bonded to acoustic-foam panels. Monuments—galleys, lavatories, and stowage compartments—are finished in workshops, then moved to a mock-up of the plane.
It’s a one-to-one scaled floorplan with exact interior dimensions,” Dryer says. “We carry out multiple inspections, and only after passing those does it go into the aircraft.” Between engineering, production, quality control, and certification, hundreds of workers leave their marks on the cabin.
Jet Aviation and Comlux Completion both understand that the process is time-sensitive, since owners have often been waiting several years from initially choosing the aircraft to taking delivery. “Our engineering and production teams start work as soon as the design is finalized, so a large portion of the interior is finished before the aircraft shows up,” says Caillet. “As soon as it arrives, we are ready to start installation.”