Richmond International’s Terry McGillicuddy talks cruise ship design

Terry McGillicuddy sits down with DesignCurial to discuss Richmond International’s prolific work in cruise ship design.

Since its inception in 1966, Richmond International has carved a path for itself in interiors, becoming a leading name in the world of luxury design. Working with clients ranging from independent owners to multinational brands, Richmond have designed, refurbished and restored some of the world’s most prestigious hotels.

Previously at DesignCurial, we’ve spoke to the studio’s principal, Fiona Thompson – but there was an element of Richmond International that wasn’t covered: its remarkable contribution to the world of cruise ship design. Hoping to right this wrong, we sat down with one of studio’s directors, Terry McGillicuddy, and discovered just what it takes to design these megaliths.

Throughout his impressive career, McGillicuddy has worked in countries around the world, and with the likes of Anita Roddick (the founder of the Body Shop). In 2002, he was introduced to Richmond when an old colleague – who had become Richmond’s managing director – approached him, asking him to help with the design for the spa at the Four Seasons Hampshire. “I met Fiona, and came to help them for a couple of weeks… and I’m still here!” McGillicuddy laughs.

Purely by chance, working on the Four Season Hampshire spa would pave the way for Richmond’s work in cruise ship design, as McGillicuddy explains. “One of the presidents of Princess Cruises [owned by Carnival Cruises] stayed at the Four Seasons in Dogmersfield with his wife, and [returning to work] he asked [his team], ‘why are our spas not like that?’ They rang us up and said, ‘would you like to design a spa on a cruise ship?’”

“They said [they had a] hull, but I kept [telling them] to move the gym away from the spa,” says McGillicuddy. “They came back with a new design, and they’d moved the rooms around.” Richmond embarked on the project, designing the spa on what would turn out to be the MS Royal Princess. When the project was close to completion, Carnival Cruises approached Richmond with a second hull, which was to be given to P&O cruises.

“They gave us the whole ship!” McGillicuddy says. “Just over 1800 cabins, and it [had] 15 food and beverage spaces, and five entertainment rooms – we just said yes. They came to us because they wanted the Dorchester on sea. It was fantastic for us, and that led onto other things.” But this wasn’t any ship Carnival had given the studio – it became P&O’s flagship, the MV Britannia.

So what did McGillicuddy find, after working on these two first major cruise projects? “You just don’t think about how complicated a ship is,” he discloses. “The most interesting thing is, there’s nothing. When you build a hotel, there’s a hole in the ground; there will be drains and a power supply. With a ship, there’s nothing at all. They cut a hole in a piece of steel and that’s the beginning.”

Discussing the Britannia, McGillicuddy explains that the design team “started the design four years before the ship was launched. They don’t start to build the ship until two years before it’s launched, so the design and engineering [has to be] resolved. They do a lot of mock up work. For example, for a treatment room, they’ll build the whole room – exactly to the design – and test everything. They’ll make sure it all fits, and that they’re happy with it, because they’re going to build twenty four of them.”

A ship, he explains, is built in blocks. “Engineering blocks. If they’re building it outside on a dock they start at the bottom and build up, deck by deck… There are lots of things to learn, but it’s really developed for us,” McGillicuddy says of the experience. After Richmond was tasked with designing the entirety of MV Britannia, it also worked alongside two other design companies on the P&O Iona. “We’ve done theatres, we’ve done show bars, we’ve done casinos, cabins, crew mess areas, pool areas – we’ve done a bit of everything,” McGillicuddy says.

He mentions that whoever the client is, they will give the designers a strong brief for the project. “They’re very formulaic in terms of any entertainment space; there will be an entertainment specialist that’s giving you all the technical information,” explains McGillicuddy. “[On the] Iona, the tagline was ‘the sea is the star’. Traditionally cruise ships look in, but Iona was all about looking out – there was lots of glazing. It kind of reversed some of the areas.”

Designing a ship, he says, “makes you think differently. You’ve got a lot of elements to think about. [For example], on Iona you’ve got – at peak – 5000 passengers on board. You’ve got to feed them all, but they also have to be moved around the ship. The rooms aren’t big enough for 5000 people all together in one place. Circulation is key, really.”

McGillicuddy explains that when a cruise project starts, it will often be inspired by another ship’s design. This gives the team an indication of the client’s budget and aspirations for the project. “It’s not like on a land project where you do the drawings, and then they get priced. It’s the other way around; the price is fixed before you’ve even got concept,” he says. “They’ve already done the deal with the ship builder to deliver this new idea for that price.”

This is not the only difference between land and sea projects, either. “People don’t use very strong colours in interiors anymore,” McGillicuddy begins. “Everything is clean and neutral and fresh – but the cruise industry aren’t frightened of colour whatsoever. Perhaps it’s because it’s all internal, and a lot of it happens at night, [but] everything we do for cruise ships is a lot more colourful than we would normally do in a hotel.”

“When you go to a five star hotel there is a lot of layering, detail, textures, and beautiful materials,” he continues. “On a ship you’re limited. There are lots of materials you can’t use; you can’t use stone – it’s too heavy – or wood, because it burns. [Instead, they use] lots of it is laminates, foils, and plastic materials. They’ve learnt how to work with them and how to develop things that look real. [Ultimately,] it’s a big ship and it has to be a particular weight.”

McGillicuddy reveals that when designing for cruises, an entire concept can be created and approved by the client before the shipyard is told about the idea. Materials can have already been chosen, and visualisations already created and signed off, before the shipyard is approached to confirm that the design is feasible.

“You almost need to know that [the idea will work] before you design the room,” he says. “The worst thing would be designing a space and finding out there’s a steel shaft in the middle of it – you wouldn’t design it in the same way, because it’s a different space. You have to do research about where the ship’s come from, or if it has a sister ship you can look at, before you leap into the design. The more you can research and find out, the easier it is.”

Even with this challenge, McGillicuddy says that designing a cruise ship is a “really good process. There are checkpoints all the way and the process is really fast. You’re doing a whole design in less than two years, up until final engineering. You’ve already been to see the mock ups and looked at all the samples. It happens really quickly, and then suddenly, it’s finished.” In comparison, a typical hotel project in the UK can take four to five years to complete – but the luxury of time cannot be afforded to cruise ship designers. “They start to sell [cabins] from two years out,” McGillicuddy reveals. “They can’t miss that first voyage. Time is of the essence; they can’t miss those dates because someone has paid to go on the cruise.”

The time limit, McGillicuddy mentions, is one of the things that most intrigues him about cruise ship design. “I like the marine world because it happens so fast,” he says. “It’s constant, and at the end there’s this sense of elation. To get that quite quickly is very satisfying – but doing things on land [creates] the same [feeling]. Being involved in design is something I’ve always done, it’s what I have a passion to do.”

Though they may have their differences, with both land and sea projects McGillicuddy has found that “you’re applying the same principles of design, whatever you’re doing. With a restaurant, [whether it’s on land or on a cruise] it’s still all about circulation and service, lighting and decoration… it’s exactly the same things but done in different ways.”

Discussion turns next to Richmond’s recent announcement that they will be working on Cunard’s latest ship. Working alongside them will be David Collins Studio and Sybille de Margene, both of which have not previously designed for a cruise. This decision seems to be part of a growing trend, in which cruise clientele are choosing designers who are usually land-based to work on their ships. “It’s interesting when you get three competitors working together, but I think it’s worked quite well,” McGillicuddy says. “We’ve got the experience and we’re trying to share what we know, because we’re all working for the same people. It’s not a competition between us, we’re all working for the same end."

It’s a good industry,” McGillicuddy says, of working in cruise design. “For us as a business, it’s an interesting thing to do. I think we do good work… Cunard, P&O and the other cruise operators seem to come back to us, asking us to do something else. So to me, we must be doing something right – and that’s the main thing.”

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