The art of provocation

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Gaylon White

One of the roles of design is to provoke. But provoking people so they like it is a tricky and sometimes risky proposition. The art of provocation comes down to subtlety — making the audience feel inspired, not provoked.

Nobody does this better than Seymourpowell Ltd., the London design firm that every now and then stirs up controversy by unleashing a futuristic concept on an industry where innovation often is stagnant and paralyzed by rules, both self-imposed and governmental.

It's no surprise that Seymourpowell is targeting the airline industry with its latest piece of design thinking called Morph, a concept that's intended to free passengers from the cheap seats in the back of the plane. Anybody who has traveled economy can tell horror stories about being squeezed and squashed by the tub of lard sitting next to them. Two-plus hours in the so-called cattle car leave most people feeling like crap. Jeremy White describes the experience with a similar four-letter word that rhymes with hit.

White is head of transport for Seymourpowell and charged with explaining Morph to air travelers highly skeptical that they will benefit from any changes in a section of the plane that has largely been overlooked despite improvements in business and first class. Morph is a bold attempt to blur the lines between the classes. Here's how it works:

Traditional foam is replaced with fabric that is stretched across the width of all three seats, around the frame and over formers. One piece of fabric is used for the seat back and one for the seat base. The fabric is clamped down by the armrests and the upper dividers to form three individual hammock seats. All of the recline happens in the soft furnishings by moving the formers behind the fabric. Seat pan height and depth can be individually controlled, morphing the fabric to provide a tailored fit and greater comfort.

By using a single piece of fabric, dividers can be unclamped and moved laterally to adjust the width of each individual seat. The mechanism and formers move, too, so the comfort, recline and adjustability are all maintained. "The aircraft can be arranged by people's willingness and ability to pay for space," Seymourpowell explains in a YouTube video promoting the concept.

The inspiration for Morph can best be described as seat-of-the-pants. No particular fabric or research data sparked the idea. Everything is based on personal experiences of being in the economy cabin.

"It's just an awful experience from start to finish," White says. "We see a lot of concepts and ideas around the business class cabin. We don't really see any sort of advancements in the economy cabin. We wanted to set our own challenge to do something which is quite difficult and try to re-invent it."

Media response to the concept has been positive but feedback on the YouTube video confirms what White describes as "deep distrust within the economy cabin that people are going to get even more ripped off."

As one viewer watched the video, he imagined a conversation among designers, engineers and financial types. The reader is left guessing who is saying what.

"Jesus Christ, guys, do you have any idea how expensive it will be to transition to this technology?

"Point taken. But do you think American asses are going to get smaller or bigger?

"Uh, yeah, okay."

Another viewer commented: "I'm sorry but if a fat dude sits next to me I would have to make my seat smaller to accommodate him? No, thank you."

"It's a polarizing idea," White admits. "A lot of people think it's all about managing oversized people. For us, it's much bigger than that. It's about choice. It's about people's emotional needs as well as their physical needs. The economy seat is ill-fitting in lots of way and we just thought we'd try and solve some of that."

The idea for Morph can be traced back to a concept Richard Seymour and Dick Powell, the founders of Seymourpowell, presented 18 years ago on a television show called Better by Design. "The show was about taking badly designed things and trying to make them better," White says.

The dynamic duo tackled products like bras, the safety razor and the shopping trolley. At the time, the base of airline seats consisted largely of foam. So they designed a fabric seat inspired by Herman Miller's iconic Aeron office chair that resembles a hammock.

White cites this as the beginning of airline seats becoming thinner. But fabric was ignored in favor of foams that achieved the desired look while providing comfort as good as the thick stuff.

"Is it about the perception of comfort — the foam?" White asks. "Or is there a better way to do it? By doing it with fabric, can we make it thinner and lighter? Can we, then, actually give those vital centimeters and millimeters back to the passenger? That's not what happened with the advent of thin seats."

White says the fabric could be some type of aramid fiber or one where the stretchiness comes from within the weave of a fabric. "It's no longer the dumb covering over a piece of structure. It becomes the smart, intelligent thing that's doing the work."

Seymourpowell didn't involve any textile manufacturers in the Morph project because, White explains, "we wanted to work it from the other side. What's the need? What do we want? And then, if it's something that has a real benefit or make things better, let's work out how we're going to make that thing."

This approach is what Seymour refers to as "preparing a runway for the idea, telling the story, setting it into context."

Seymourpowell designed the interior of Richard Branson's futuristic Virgin Galactic Spaceship and then simulated a flight with animation and high-end visualization. The firm devised the Flex seat layout system for rail cars so passengers can position their seats for privacy or conviviality.

In both cases Seymourpowell created a runway into the future just as it's doing with Morph.

"We put it out there to see what others thought and to provoke debate," White says.

Morph also attracts attention to the way Seymourpowell designers think. As White sees it, "The airline industry can do with a bit of this kind of thinking."