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Trendspotting with My Nguyen

Step aboard a cruise ship and you’re stepping aboard a floating city. Like any city, these cities need to function independently at a high level and look good while doing it. We recently sat down with interior designer My Nguyen, who specializes in designing for cruise ships, to learn what it’s like and what trends she sees in her industry. Based in Seattle, My is the Director of Interior Design and has been designing for Holland America and Seabourn for much of her career. She leads a team that designs everything from crew areas to staterooms, bars, and restaurants.

What significant trends have evolved in the cruise ship industry?

“For years, the cruise industry had a mystique about it, and the focus was more on cruising and less on design. The mystique of cruising was enough,” My said. But something happened over the last fifteen years. Good design went mainstream. Places like Target brought good design into homes at affordable prices. Entertainment such as HGTV brought an awareness of interior design to consumers. As mainstream consumers became more aware of good design, they demanded it, and the hospitality industry responded. Hotels began updating spaces and cruise ships eventually followed suit, designing the interiors to feel more like hotels. For example, ships began paying attention to staterooms in a way they hadn’t before.

Signature Suite on board m/s Rotterdam, Designed by Holland America Line Interior Design

“It used to be the mentality that staterooms needed to be basic,” My Nguyen explained. The concept was to encourage guests to spend time in the revenue generating areas and only go back to their staterooms to sleep. However, they began to realize that there was a demand for nicer rooms even at a higher price point. The stateroom is a traveler’s home away from home, and people want them to feel more residential. People go on vacation to escape the chaos of their everyday lives. They want excitement and adventure, but at the end of the day, they want their surroundings to feel cozy and safe.

With this shift, My designs the staterooms as “high-end sophisticated.” The goal is for the rooms to be quiet, comfortable, and functional. To achieve this, she uses luxurious materials with more subdued colors and gives the staterooms visual interest by mixing patterns and textures. The rooms feel elevated and well-appointed, with luxurious bathrooms.

With this shift toward better designed staterooms came a push by the cruise industry to broaden the clientele. Today, there is a cruise for everyone on the market. The cruise industry began to create smaller cruise ships and itineraries that appealed to a more diverse pool of travelers. As a result, the last two decades have seen the rise of boutique cruising and exploration cruising, which looks and feels very different from traditional cruising in massive ships.

The Pinnacle Suite on board m/s Rotterdam, Design by Holland America Line Interior Design

Where does My Nguyen look for trends?

Cruise ships are on a completely different timetable due to the complexity of refurbishing a ship and the limited time a ship is out of water. Designers can’t solely rely on magazines for trends because what is in a magazine today may be fading by the time a ship sets sail. Instead, My Nguyen likes “to research trends out of context.” She looks outside of her industry to see what’s happening in the culture at large. Instead of reaching for interior design magazines, she flips through fashion and cooking ones.

Additionally, she scrolls through social media to get a sense of what people perceive as high-end. She also pays attention to what is happening in art and entertainment. What types of exhibits are upcoming? What is happening in the world of music, movies, and theater? All these factors help shape the population’s mood and inform what trends come and go in all industries.

Holland America’s signature Pinnacle Grill, Design by Tihany Design

What colors are trending in cruise ship design?

Lately, color is leaning more toward neutrals. In the early days, cruise ships were compared to casinos. The colors were loud and stimulating. Today’s ships have shifted the color palette to lean more sophisticated, especially in staterooms. They want fewer loud color combinations and, instead, more neutrals with tasteful color accents. For those accents, one can never go wrong with a variety of blues for ships. “Citrine colors also, I see more green on the ships where previously there was a stigma to ‘sea sick’ green, and jewel tones also pair well with neutrals.” As far as color tonality, they’re a bit more tertiary than primary, more greyed out and less electric. As we emerge from the pandemic, people want a feeling of health and wellness. Toned-down colors and ones that feel light and bright all feel more soothing than dark, heavy tones.

Similar to hotels, cruise ships are getting more integrated with technology. Tap a bracelet on your wrist and someone brings you a drink. Bright colors are often associated with tech, so My uses soft, subdued colors to create a more relaxing environment in areas such as the staterooms, and uses bolder colors in public areas depending on the venue.  “For example, we designed a rock room that is primarily black, and grey with accents of red.  There’s a time and a place to go neutral, and a time and place to go dramatic.  It really depends on the feeling you want to evoke in the space.”

Designing for ships has a huge logistical challenge.

Ships are floating cities moving around the world. It’s not like a hotel, where trucks can roll up and work on a building with standard dimensions. All the materials needed for a renovation need to get on and off the ship, and there are limited ways to do that. For example, furniture needs to be custom designed to fit within the vessel’s dimensions or be assembled in staterooms.

Ships dry dock on average every two to five years, and that’s when major renovations happen. Everything must be ready to go the minute the ship is ready. But no ship is dry docking alone. A shipyard can have multiple ships being renovated at the same time. All materials and labor need to be coordinated precisely to avoid expensive delays. This is why cruise ships rarely work with a vendor with no marine experience. There just isn’t any room for error.

Lastly, sustainability is beyond a trend.

There has been a lot of focus on sustainability in all aspects of interior design. For My Nguyen, sustainability is more than a trend. It’s a driving force behind her design and material sourcing. It also informs who she works with. Finding partners with the same sustainability values as she and her clients have is essential.

Cruise ship design is an industry that’s not for everyone. “It’s hospitality on steroids,” My jokes. Yet, if a designer is a good fit for the industry, it can lead to a long and exciting career, creating spaces for travelers to enjoy and ultimately be part of special memories.  

Thanks so much to My Nguyen for talking with Design Pool!

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Kristin Crane

Kristin Crane has designed jacquard designs for the home furnishing and residential jobber market for many years, with mills in the US and in China. Today, she writes about pattern and design trends for Design Pool from her home in Providence, Rhode Island. When not writing about fabric, she can be found weaving in her home studio or hiking along the Rhode Island coast.


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