Futuristic airline cabin design car inspired Ultrafabric seat fabric
February 08, 2024

From cars to airplane cabins - design evolution

United Airlines Polaris Business Class Seating


In design cycles over the years, inspiration for aircraft cabin design and aesthetic has often been drawn from the automotive sector. At the pointy end of the plane this inspiration often comes from luxury automobiles, while further back it usually tends towards the wider consumer car market.


In some cases, these parallels make much sense from a company point of view, with many elements of the seat supply chain providing materials to both the automotive and the aviation industries. Seatmakers, too, often produce both, from longtime stalwarts like Recaro (whose name stems fromREutter CAROsserie, or Reutter Bodywork) through to more recent entrants like Adient Aerospace (previously part of Johnson Controls).


To an extent, this inspiration made a lot of sense, and still does for many shorter flights, where the passenger experience parallels between a few hours’ drive and a few hours in an airplane are fairly plain. Yet here, as elsewhere, the rise in longer flights and the ever-increasing expectations of today’s passengers is changing the game.


Air Japan Seats


When it comes to the newer generations of premium seats, though especially in business class mini-suites and the rarified environs of first class suites, designers are looking more towards premium residential and architectural inspirations. It’s all a little bit more Architectural Digest than Car and Driver, especially when it comes to materials and palettes.

The best modern premium seats and suites lean more heavily into textures and textiles than they did even a few years ago — and, in some regrettable cases, than they still do in some examples still being installed on aircraft today.

Particularly for longer flights, a tightly stitched automotive-style leather is often eschewed in favour of a design that’s more leather sofa than leather driver’s seat, or indeed it might lean towards the increasing range of textile options now available that look and feel very premium — and which allow more air movement on longer flights.

In some ways aviation has often been more adventurous than automotive, especially when it comes to colour. Few carmakers venture beyond the black-white-grey monochrome even today, with the exception of a bit of beige or tan here and there. While aviation has often leaned heavily on fairly corporate mid-to-dark blues, recent airline brand changes have empowered cabin designers to be bold.

Japan Airlines' new blue accent is charming and modern-small


Air India’s very pleasing set of colourways is one recent example here, but others like ANA subsidiary Air Japan’s coral-peach akebono accent colour, representing a sunrise, and Japan Airlines’ new calming sky blue accent colour on its latest Airbus A350-1000, are also changing the way cabins look and feel.

Aviation should continue to make bold design choices, and this can be especially effective when it comes to the patterns and colours of seat covers: these are a big part of a first impression, can then largely be hidden by passengers when seated to create a more calming space, and are simple to change out when tastes and brand guidelines dictate.

Even some airlines that once leaned heavily into automotive-style glossy wood effects are dialling that back in favour of a wider range of textures, evolving to a woody, natural kind of cabin branding palette. More seats and suites are drawing inspiration from upmarket hotel rooms than from luxury cars, and where they do they are often more successful in design terms.

Hotel spaces are evolving too, both in terms of rooms needing to function more as remote/hybrid workspaces, or the increasingly multifunctional lobby and public areas that serve as everything from checkin to coworking area, café to chillout spaces. For an airplane seat or suite that is everything from living room to dining room to bedroom to office, the multifunctional parallels are clear — and offer a wealth of inspiration.

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