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Improving Air Travel

A cross-disciplinary spring studio sponsored by Textron Aviation Inc. invites students to reimagine the experience of flying.

Improving Air Travel

Students in a cross-disciplinary studio envision how their interior design elements will work in relation to the basic dimensions and curvature of a Cessna jet. | photo by Jo Sittenfeld MFA 08 PH

In a spring studio called Between Environments, Interior Architecture and Industrial Design students are completely reimagining the future of non-commercial aviation – envisioning specific users with changing needs and proposing long-term solutions to address those needs. “More than simply designing new interior spaces, we’re using a mindful, interdisciplinary approach to redesign the air travel experience,” explains Associate Professor of Industrial Design Khipra Nichols 78 ID.

Nichols and Interior Architecture Critic Michael Beaman are co-teaching the sponsored research studio as part of RISD’s ongoing relationship with the Cessna Aircraft Company, a subsidiary of Textron Aviation Inc. The current course builds on the 2015 spring studio, The Space of Flight, and a Wintersession 2016 research seminar that included Digital+ Media grad students.

In this spring’s studio, students are working in four cross-disciplinary teams to develop design proposals for hypothetical clients representing a range of needs. For instance, one group is considering the experience of flight from the perspective of a successful DJ who travels from gig to gig in his personal jet and needs to sleep and prepare for the next show during flights. Another imagines the needs of a working mother and Silicon Valley CEO zipping back and forth across the country with her baby and a personal assistant. A third team is designing an interior space for a wealthy family with young children and high-end tastes.

"We're using a mindful, interdisciplinary approach to redesign the air travel experience."
Khipra Nichols 78 ID, associate professor of Industrial Design

“Aesthetics are important,” noted Interior Architecture grad student Madeleine Devall MA 17 during an interim crit. “We’re envisioning a client who loves high-end, exclusive handbags for example. That kind of high-quality leather and craftsmanship should be reflected in the plane’s seats.”

One of the key concepts to emerge during this spring’s investigations is the notion of private aircraft as temporary home. In the studio, this has given rise to such universal design considerations as the importance of good lighting, private space and room for exercise.

Students are also exploring common ground through the need for adaptability and flexibility. “Each group is working on interchangeable elements that allow the interior space to be transformed to serve different functions,” Beaman explains. Movable panels could divide common spaces, for example, transforming them into private cubbies where individuals could rest or work online.

As the semester comes to a close, each group is working to combine the best of their ideas into a single model they’ll share with representatives from Cessna in late May. Students have already had the opportunity to get a general sense of the space they’re working with by boarding current Cessna models at T.F. Green Airport in nearby Warwick, RI. And in the studio, a plywood and foam-core cylinder that represents a full-scale section of the fuselage, helps students see how their interior design elements will work in relation to the basic dimensions, headroom and curvature of an actual Cessna jet. Aiming for full immersion, several students even camped out in the mock fuselage to get a better sense of the space.

As students develop their propositions for the next visit from leaders at Cessna, Nichols offers plenty of encouragement. “It’s great to see the collaborative methods you’ve developed,” he tells them. “I’m very impressed with how your individual talents are merging and creating a sum that’s greater than its parts.”

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