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Deep Blue Sea


This cruise-ship apartment defies the usual conventions of marine interiors, and draws on architect Michael K Chen's experience creating compact, crafted spaces

Architect Michael K Chen made his name designing beautifully crafted yet space-savvy apartments in New York City, so he was a natural choice when it came to applying micro-living concepts to a floating dwelling. Playfully dubbed by his practice MKCA as a ‘pied-à-mer’, the 55 sqm space is one of 165 homes aboard a private cruise ship that’s constantly circumnavigating the globe.

Tucked into the apartment are a foyer, two bedrooms, a living-dining-kitchen area, two bathrooms and a luggage storage room. Clever, multifunctional living space on such a small footprint is a given, but Chen’s solutions have had some extra thought put into them. A dining table folds down from one wall, with a bed that can fold down from the perpendicular wall: you’d never need to use both at the same time, so it makes perfect sense that the two should be interchangeable. A fixed banquette sofa serves the dining table, but the bed folds down on top of it. The main living space is open plan, but a sliding screen comes across when both bedrooms are needed.

In small spaces we often look to stretch the space out, rather than offering a quick and easy way to access everything at once

“Carefully plotting out the patterns of use and the rhythms of the day is an important activity that we always engage in when designing these kinds of environments,” says Chen. “We want the transformations to happen in an effortless and smooth way that help to transition between functions or states over the course of the day. It’s the space around the moving elements, and the unfolding of uses, more than the moving pieces themselves that we are usually designing.”

Chen’s interiors are a world away from traditional yacht design with their shiny timber panelling, but they still have a marine heritage. The practice looked instead to how the modernists were inspired by the functionality of cruise ships, and how these pioneers took away some of the lessons of streamlined, small-scale living to their residential designs.

“Spatially, the apartment is just a box, but we made a considerable effort to design spaces that invite discovery and to create more of a space of procession,” says Chen. “You enter between two pod-like volumes that are clad in aluminium ribs. We wanted to give a sense of arrival even though it’s a very small space, and also to provide a glimpse of the water, but delay offering up the whole view until you pass between the volumes into the living area.

“To access the master bath and dressing room, you have to walk around one of the pods. This was deliberate and offered a way to elongate the path through the apartment, making it feel larger than it is. In small spaces we often look to stretch the space out, rather than offering a quick and easy way to access everything at once.”

There is already a lot of visual clutter on a ship – vents, speakers and alarms – so streamlining the design to try not to add to the noise was a priority. For example, the lighting is nearly all integrated, either via spotlights or LED strips that trace practically every line, horizontally at floor and ceiling level and around the built-in beds and tables. Considering all the latches and catches that are needed to hold everything in place in the apartment, Chen has created something remarkably pared-back. “You really have to be able to batten down the hatches, so hiding or developing clever ways to integrate locking mechanisms, pins and other elements that fix everything in place was definitely a challenge,” he says.

“We wanted something more streamlined and restrained, but still with a strong craft sensibility,” he continues. “I think that whether you’re designing on a ship or a building, it’s important to be able to have a sense of where one is. So we’re playing up some of the big machine aspects of the vessel with details like aluminium ribs and the integrated linear LED lighting, but those aspects are also taut and subtle so they feel more refined. And to counterbalance that, we have really luxurious textiles with a lot of texture, and leathers and other materials that will patina and change over time.”

The furniture mixes vintage and contemporary. A Vuelta sofa, designed by Jaime Hayon for Wittmann and upholstered in rust-red high-performance velvet, sits next to steel and leather chairs by Pierre Thielen, sourced from a Dutch dealer, and a fibreglass table by Faye Toogood. A wool rug by Grain Design takes the form of a series of overlapping circles, pushing out into the open-plan space and stopping the various living areas feel too boxy and defined. The round, polished copper mirror by Birnam Wood Studio in the foyer, paired with a T-Stool by Studio Paolo Ferrari, looks like a setting sun, picking up on the burnished tones of the sofa.

Not the least of the challenges of this project was the fact that it was a moving target. Much of the interior was prefabricated in an Austrian workshop and was installed in a dry dock in Spain. Some installation happened at sea, though, and the practice had to work out where the ship was going to be, and send out pieces to meet it, such as the folding table, which was fabricated in New York but had to get to Asia at just the right time. “Fortunately the installers that we worked with have a lot of familiarity with this kind of arrangement, so they’re set up to do work in this way,” says Chen. “They board in one location with their tools and crew, and then they disembark in another location and fly home.”