Upper Class Suite

Client: Virgin Atlantic Airways

Sector: Aviation

Commission: 2001

Launch: 2003

Virgin Atlantic Airways appointed PearsonLloyd to design the Upper Class Suite, seat and surround of its entire fleet of planes. The studio re-thought the layout, aesthetic and ergonomics of the seating and surrounding environment, and brought a culture of furniture design to an industry dominated by product design.

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Prior to PearsonLloyd’s commission, it was product designers that developed plane seat and cabin interiors. Consequently, upper class seats had a high-tech aesthetic, inspired by the racing car industry. PearsonLloyd’s goal was to strip away excess technology to develop a chair that was more like a lounge chair: elegant, and as simple to use as possible. Because none of the existing components needed to be incorporated into the finished product, the design studio could build the chair from the bottom up. PearsonLloyd’s greatest achievement in this project is its successful navigation of complex relationships with engineers. The collaborative skills enabled the studio to take the Upper Class experience to new levels of design, function and service, with almost no sacrifices: a result which all parties involved are proud of.

Key to the concept was the introduction of a shield or shell around the seat, enabling the passenger to feel private and cocooned, despite being in a very public, shared environment. The hard surface gives passengers a sense of protection, and helps to accentuate the softness and luxury of the chair inside. The shield also houses the functional elements of the chair: digital entertainment, tray table, chair controls and safety equipment, allowing the chair itself to be as free from buttons and interference as possible.

The chair converts into a completely flat bed by pulling the seat back forward – thanks to a newly developed mechanism. Unlike competing designs, the comfort of both the sitting and sleeping position is not compromised: both have perfect ergonomics. The seats are organised in a herringbone layout, each facing towards the aisle and into the cabin; rather like tables and chairs around a bar area, creating a communal atmosphere for passengers sitting upright. The chair can convert into two different seating positions, and for the first time in the industry, passengers can take off and land in either lounge or upright position. This is achieved through the use of an air bag, which again is a first in passenger aviation. Each passenger has an ottoman to seat a friend or colleague, for in flight beauty therapy treatments, or just to put feet on.

The chair brought Virgin into the remit of a design led brand, and was used to represent Virgin in its advertising campaign. It was subsequently licensed out to Air New Zealand, enabling Virgin to offset its development costs. During this period a number of competing airlines launched chairs based on PearsonLloyd’s design.